Jake Bentley wasn’t completely free of responsibility in earning the boos he received before halftime in South Carolina’s 26-23 loss to Texas A&M on Saturday.
He threw an end-zone pick and put a few balls high. But throughout the game, his receivers also hurt him with drops that erased big plays. It left Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp flummoxed, as he noted Texas A&M’s defensive scheme allows for one-on-one matchups that USC often won.
“We had some wonderful opportunities out there that we didn’t take advantage of them,” Muschamp said, admitting he’s surprised his talented receivers have struggled catching the ball in big games.
Here’s a list of and look at each one and what it could have meant.
▪ 0:31 Q1, USC 25: Jake Bentley’s pump and go to Deebo Samuel hits the receiver 46 yards downfield to the A&M 29. It’s a matchup between a player who was considered one of the best receivers in the country at one point against a reserve defense back. The ball lands in the breadbasket, and Samuel was in position to get at least a few more yards — or potentially a touchdown — after the catch.
▪ 8:31 Q2, USC 36: After a 4th-down conversion, USC calls a max-protection play-action pass. Bentley slings another pass deep, this time to Bryan Edwards, again 46 yards downfield, again with more room to run. It came against the same reserve corner, Myles Jones, and again landed right in the breadbasket. It would have had USC at least at the Aggie 18.
▪ 7:48 Q2, USC 28: This one isn’t quite as bad considering the Gamecocks were facing third and 18 and the pass is short of the sticks. The ball hits Shi Smith 14 yards downfield on a dig route (deep in). There were a lot of defenders there, but it basically hit him in the hands. Maybe he breaks it for the final 4 yards, or at least doesn’t nearly drop it into the defender’s hands.
▪ 2:51 Q3, USC 23: This one costs less in the end, since the Gamecocks end up scoring afterwards. Still, A&M busted a coverage and Shi Smith was wide open. The ball wasn’t thrown out in front, as Bentley has seemed hesitant to lead players that wide open, but where he threw it would’ve ensured a big play and no chance the safety gets involved. But Smith slipped and still had the ball catch him in the hands 28 yards downfield at the A&M 48.
▪ 8:22 Q4, USC 26: The first two drops were bad, but this one was a killer. The Gamecocks set up a nice, heavy play-action, going under center for effect. Shi Smith got completely open on an out route and had the ball in his hands 13 yards downfield (at the USC 39), with some room to go. But then he dropped it, with USC down three points on the only chance it would have to take the lead in the second half. USC followed with an offensive pass interference that was declined and then gave up a sack.
▪ BONUS: This doesn’t 100 percent count because it’s not a wide receiver, but Rashad Fenton stepped in front of a third-and-goal pass and all-but had the interception to keep Texas A&M from going ahead for good with 9:22 to play. One could add a few caveats – it wasn’t a super easy play, defensive backs aren’t receivers for a reason, the pick likely would’ve pinned USC at the 1 to make a quick-punt, short-field situation likely – but it was another drop of note.
So focusing on the offensive side of the ball, USC lost at minimum 105 yards and generously 146 before even factoring in yards after catch, which was available on at least three of the plays. Now deep balls are difficult for a reason, but in a one-score game, two or three of them stand a very good chance of making a difference.
None of the receivers with the drops spoke after the game, but Bentley reaffirmed his confidence in his pass catchers.
“The know that I’m going to keep throwing to them and I have all the faith in the world,” Bentley said. “It’s something that we as a group have to work on.
“Do whatever it takes to stop this from happening.”