It would be unfair to say South Carolina’s Jake Bentley didn’t have help on Saturday.
He had Bryan Edwards making a crazy catch and run. He had Deebo Samuel’s kickoff return. He had Mon Denson stepping up, a line that did some good work and Ty’Son Williams juking an untold number of Ole Miss defenders.
But the Gamecocks’ signal caller wasn’t getting help from all areas.
His defense stepped up late, but only after allowing 44 points on the first 10 drives. His offensive line was on its No. 3 left tackle, and his best guard, Zack Bailey, was hobbled at points. One of his most sure-handed receivers, Shi Smith, dropped a potential game-changing play that meant Bentley had to lead a comeback from 10 points down in the fourth quarter.
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Yet he delivered with his arm, with his legs, when USC needed it.
Again and again.
He’s on start No. 27 in his career, and it’s fair to say he just put up his finest performance as a Gamecock in the 48-44 win.
“Jake Bentley, a gutsy performance,” South Carolina coach Will Muschamp said. “Was really accurate with the football. … Really made some gutsy plays there.”
“I thought he was outstanding.”
His team’s 42.8 3rd-down conversion rate was good, but not great, yet in the highest-leverage third down of the afternoon, he made the play.
USC was facing third and goal from the Ole Miss 4-yard line, down three. It’s a spot where a quarterback wants that touchdown but still needs to be cognizant his team needs that field goal. The difference between tied and up four points is massive against an offense like Ole Miss, but so is the difference between being tied and still down.
Bentley calmly surveyed his five receivers, saw space open up and took off from the 10, seeing the perfect angle to waltz across the goal line, almost hitting the letters in the word “REBELS” before anyone made contact.
“They just went seven across, I say that, they just have seven guys that are right on the goal line,” Bentley said. “Just zone coverage. In that situation, we talk about, all the time, try to get it in yourself knowing that they’re all dropping to zone. Just went through my reads and tried to go make a play.”
Bentley’s 363 yards were his second-most ever, and the most came in a two-interception bowl loss to South Florida. His rating of 184.7 was also his second-best, only behind a blowout of Coastal Carolina to start this season.
He’s arguably never played better against an SEC opponent, certainly not in a game where he had so many plays to make at the end, and not in a shootout situation in the same vein as Saturday’s win.
And the win he led USC to will have some reverberations at the end of the regular season.
With a loss, USC would’ve needed an upset to avoid 6-6. It would have, barring that upset, gone into the 12th game against Akron needing a last win for bowl eligibility. A .500 USC team is likely heading to Shreveport or Birmingham come bowl season.
Now Chattanooga and Akron stand between USC and seven wins. That likely means a better tier of bowl. It means .500 at least before considering the possibility of upending Florida or Clemson. It saves a little face for a season that hasn’t gone the way many hoped but could have been much worse.
And in a season where Bentley has often heard it from fans, he delivered one of his finest days in garnet and black.
“We had to respond,” Bentley said. “That was the message all day. We’re going to have respond each and every time they scored.
“In that moment, nobody panicked, nobody got rattled.”