South Carolina started slow. Again. The Gamecocks rallied. Again. Head coach Will Muschamp came to the defense of his starting quarterback. Again. South Carolina lost to Texas A&M. Again.
The Gamecocks fell 26-23 to the No. 22 Aggies on Saturday in front of an announced crowd of 76,871 in Williams-Brice Stadium, falling to 0-5 all-time against Texas A&M and 0-8 in their last eight games against ranked teams.
Starting quarterback Jake Bentley and the offense bore the brunt of the fans’ ire for the loss and not without reason. Bentley was 6-of-17 for 46 yards, no touchdowns and one interception at halftime and drew loud boos from the fans on several occasions.
“He’s a battler. He’s a competitor. He’s competing in front of 80,000 people. That position is going to be criticized, just like my position. He understands it,” Muschamp said. “He battled his (butt) off and put us in position to win the football game. That’s his mental makeup. That’s why he has a lot of respect from his teammates and has the respect of his coaching staff.”
“We need to play better around him.”
That was a reference to a wide receiving corps that was expected to be this team’s strength but has instead had repeated problems catching the ball. Senior Deebo Samuel and junior Bryan Edwards each dropped passes that would have been at least 50-yard gains in the first half.
“It changes the whole complexion of the game if you finish those plays,” Muschamp said.
It wasn’t just Samuel and Edwards either. Shi Smith didn’t drop a pass in the first 17 games of his collegiate career. He dropped two Saturday against the Aggies. Kiel Pollard dropped another.
“We had to take some shots down the field. We felt like we could win in coverage down the field and we did,” Muschamp said. “We just have to take advantage of our opportunities. We have to finish the play. Those are the frustrating things to overcome for us right now.”
Impossible things to overcome, in fact. South Carolina trailed 16-0 before its offense got going. The Gamecocks eventually tied the game at 16-16 but couldn’t muster enough offense to finish the comeback. South Carolina finished with 299 yards, stopping short of 300 for the first time this season.
Asked how surprised he was that it’s his wide receivers who have been the most glaring issue, Muschamp said, “Very.”
Asked if he could explain it, he replied, “I really can’t.”
Bentley missed last week’s game due to a knee injury, and senior backup Michael Scarnecchia threw for 249 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in his absence, but Muschamp said he never seriously considered replacing Bentley with Scarnecchia against the Aggies. Many in the Williams-Brice crowd would have made that move in the first half, and they let their feelings be known when Bentley threw an interception in the end zone in the first half and on several occasions he missed throws.
“Obviously, it’s disappointing to hear that from the fans, but they just want to win and so do I,” Bentley said.
Bentley’s teammates came to his defense during the game, Bentley said, and he came to his receivers’ defense after the game.
“They know I am going to keep throwing it to them, and I have all the faith in the world in them,” he said. “It’s something that we as a group have to work on in practice and do whatever it takes to stop this from happening. They know I have complete faith in them, and I’m going to keep throwing it up to them for them to make plays.”
The Gamecocks offense’s struggles — they failed to reach 100 yards rushing as a team and converted only 2-of-9 third downs — put a lot of strain on the defense. Texas A&M held the ball for 41 minutes, 29 seconds of the game’s 60 minutes and methodically rolled up 458 yards. The Aggies held the ball for 12:17 of the third quarter and went ahead 26-16 on a 3-yard run by Trayveon Williams with 1:36 remaining. Samuel caught a 6-yard touchdown pass with 48 seconds left to close the gap to 26-23, but South Carolina did not recover the ensuing onside kick attempt.
“Our guys continued to battle and put ourselves in a position at the end to have an opportunity and didn’t get it done, bottom line,” Muschamp said.