The South Carolina Gamecocks had a case of “here we go again”, for two and a half quarters yesterday. Then they grabbed momentum and things changed dramatically. Down 19-3 in the third quarter of the Outback Bowl, the South Carolina offense finally woke up. Thanks to some Michigan miscues and Jake Bentley finding a rhythm, the Gamecocks scored 23 straight points for a 26-19 victory. They finish the season with nine wins for only the seventh time in school history.
Sluggish Start to the New Year
The Gamecocks did not start this game well. They looked lost on offense, and they had trouble blocking Michigan’s defensive front. South Carolina went three and out on five of their first seven possessions, as the offense struggled to find any rhythm. Bentley once again started poorly, but a lot of that could be due to his lack of time in the pocket. He had time to set his feet and find a receiver twice in the first half. Michigan’s Chase Winovich and Devin Bush spent a large portion of the first half in USC’s backfield. The run game could not get going either, with two drives ending after failed rushing attempts on third and short.
The Gamecocks also had a few special teams’ miscues that cost them in the first half. Chris Lammons mishandled a punt that Michigan recovered. Shi Smith had a half to forget in terms of kick-off returns. Luckily, as they have all year, the defense did not let the Wolverines cash in on the turnovers. They only allowed two field goals off of two first half turnovers and were still in the game at halftime because of it.
The Gamecocks were by no means an offensive juggernaut in the second half, but by comparison to the first 30 minutes, it was an explosion. In search of nine wins in a season for the first time since 2014, Carolina finally got going midway thru the third quarter. After using a couple of quick passes to the flat to counter Michigan’s aggressive pass rush, Bentley began to get going. A 15 yard late hit penalty following a Hayden Hurst catch set the Gamecocks up inside the red zone. On the next play Bentley pitched it to Rico Dowdle on a speed option and he made a few guys miss on his way to a 17 yard touchdown. That play sparked some life into the garnet and black.
Michigan fumbled the ball on their next possession and South Carolina took advantage. On the first play following the turnover, Bentley found Bryan Edwards for a 21 yard scoring pass. Edwards once again showcased his ability to go get the ball when it is in the air. The sophomore wide-out finished with five receptions for 88 yards. The Gamecocks mounted their best drive of the day the next time they had the ball. They went 81 yards in six plays to take the lead. The drive was highlighted by a 3rd and 17 conversion to Hurst, before Bentley hit Smith with his best pass of the day for a 53 yard score. For the game South Carolina finished with 300 total yards.
Defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson stated earlier in the week that he wanted his unit to set the Outback Bowl record for turnovers. His lofty goal was set and his defense responded with five takeaways to tie the record. The Gamecocks recovered two fumbles and a muffed punt. They also intercepted two passes. JaMarcus King got one of those interceptions in the end zone with the Gamecocks holding onto a 23-19 lead. While Steven Montac sealed the game with an interception in the final minute. South Carolina held Michigan to just 277 total yards.
Turnovers and red zone defense were the staples of Robinson’s unit all year long. With a inconsistent offense, many of the nine wins can be attributed to an opportunistic defense. They are top of the SEC with 28 takeaways. Despite being put in some bad situations by their teammates, they only allowed six points off of three turnovers. That continued a trend as the Gamecock defense has only allowed opponents to score 19 points on 17 turnovers this season. That is an impressive stat that speaks to the resiliency of this team. Linebacker T.J. Brunson had a big game with 13 tackles and two sacks, while Lammons added 10 tackles and recovered a fumble.
Nine Wins and Moving Forward
Coach Will Muschamp took over a program that had only three wins the previous season. Even after doubling that total and reaching a bowl game in his first year, expectations still were not high in 2017. The Gamecocks exceeded all expectations and notched nine wins in year two under Muschamp. This team has a small but productive senior class graduating, along with junior tight end Hurst leaving for the NFL. The defense has been building depth and should be able to replace what it loses, while the offense will remain mostly intact.
South Carolina’s roster is 70% underclassmen, and will return injured stars Deebo Samuel and Bryson Allen-Williams as well. With such a young core of players and solid recruiting classes stacking up, the Gamecocks will shoot for loftier goals in 2018. Nine wins may be the starting point of next year’s expectations.
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