It’s a common refrain in football circles that the quarterback receives too much praise when a team is winning and too much blame when they are not. Gamecocks signal caller Jake Bentley knows this sentiment all too well. South Carolina has not had the season many fans expected in 2018. There are a multitude of reasons for the failures of this team, but, especially in the realm of social media, Bentley has taken the brunt of the criticism. His play warranted it early in the season but he began to turn his season around in the second half against Texas A&M. The junior quarterback has seen his share of highs and lows in his three years in Columbia. His play in recent weeks is as good as its been since he took over as a true freshman.
Jake Bentley Finds His Groove
One of the most persistent and glaring problems for Bentley is his struggles to start games. For much of the last two seasons, he has had his issues in the first quarter. His passes would often come out too hot and he frequently overthrows his targets early in games. He is known as an emotional player and many thought he was too amped at the start of games. Bentley would normally settle in as the game wore on, but his first quarter issues were a consistent theme. These struggles were especially costly this season. Slow starts against Kentucky and Texas A&M cost the Gamecocks a chance at crucial victories. As previously mentioned, Bentley did begin to turn around his season in the second half against the Aggies.
Somewhat mirroring his issues early in games, Bentley had an erratic start to his 2018 season. His performances in losses to Georgia and Kentucky were not good. The game against the Wildcats was particularly poor, he never seemed to settle in. Bentley was 13-28 for 148 yards with three interceptions. It was the one game this season where he was out of rhythm throughout the entire game.
Turnovers, however, were his biggest problem in the first half of the season. He threw seven interceptions in his first five games of 2018. The biggest of those came in the first half of the loss to A&M, when he made both a bad decision and a terrible pass that was picked off in the end zone. Frustration boiled over in the crowd, and boos rained down on the junior signal-caller.
Since that pass, Jake Bentley has found his groove. Unfortunately, his receivers spent much of the game versus the Aggies dropping passes that hit them in the hands. The Gamecock quarterback did not let that affect him though. He has been at the top of his game for the past several weeks. Despite his slow start that day, its possible another potential turning point was the week before when he didn’t even play. After injuring his knee at Kentucky, Bentley missed the following week’s game with Missouri. Senior Michael Scarnecchia stepped in and led the Gamecocks to victory.
For the first time since becoming a starter as a freshman, Jake Bentley had to watch someone else take meaningful snaps at quarterback for South Carolina. There has long been a question to whether having little competition for his starting spot had affected Bentley’s growth. His play since missing that game has given some credibility to that thought process.
The Gamecock offense has played at a high level since the bye week. They relied heavily on the run game to top the Tennessee Volunteers, but Bentley was efficient despite his modest numbers. The next week at Ole Miss, the junior had perhaps his best game in garnet and black. He was 22-32 for 363 yards and two touchdowns. His rushing score late in the fourth gave Carolina a lead they would not relinquish. In the past four games, Jake Bentley is 76-97 for 1093 yards, nine touchdowns, and only two interceptions. This is the quarterback play that fans, coaches, and pundits expected to see all season.
Much like his in-game struggles, Bentley was erratic to start his junior season. However, he has settled into a groove and is playing his best football lately. It’s no surprise that the Gamecocks are 3-1 in their last four games. They could be 4-0; the offense did what needed to be done to get a win in the Swamp, but the defense allowed Florida to stage a late comeback.
Stretching the Field
One of the biggest reasons Jake Bentley is more effective is the deep passes. As a freshman, he was praised for his accuracy on long throws. Last season he struggled throwing the deep ball with any consistency. Early this season the Gamecocks were not attempting many downfield throws. Over the last few weeks, however, it has become a mainstay in the South Carolina passing attack. Bentley has been extremely accurate on downfield passes in the past few games. Receivers Bryan Edwards and Shi Smith have benefited from Bentley’s accuracy on the deep ball. They are the most frequent targets in the downfield passing game. Edwards made Sportscenter’s Top Ten Plays with his one-handed grab against Ole Miss. This past weekend he made a brilliant adjustment on a back shoulder throw by Bentley for a big gain.
After having some drop issues early in the season, the receiving corps is playing like most thought they would leading into the season. Bentley’s accuracy and willingness to challenge the defense over the top has opened up things in the intermediate passing game as well. The Gamecocks’ best play-maker, Deebo Samuel, has benefited from the extra space. He was able to turn a short pass into a big gain in each of the last few games. Bentley has also shown a better ability to spread the ball around. Early in 2018, he was focused too much on forcing the ball to Edwards and Deebo. More of the Gamecocks’ weapons are being utilized lately. He has found nine different receivers in each of the last three games.
Big Test Remaining
Everyone knows what is coming next, a trip upstate to face the rival Clemson Tigers. This will be a big moment for Jake Bentley. He and his team have not been able to perform well in big games the last few seasons. The offense played well at Florida, but the defense folded late as they choked away a big lead. In his two match-ups with the in-state rival, Bentley has struggled mightily. He is 23-48 for only 167 yards and one score. He threw an inexplicable pick-six early in last year’s contest that set the tone for an easy Tiger victory.
Bentley will need to be at his best from the opening kick if the Gamecocks have a chance to pull off the big upset. If the opportunity for a big play downfield arises, South Carolina has to connect. The Clemson defense is too strong to consistently drive down the field on them. Bentley’s downfield accuracy will be paramount to the Gamecock’s chances of success. The ability to keep his emotions in check and start the game settled and focused will also be key. He has the chance to shake off more of that big game stigma but will need to be at his best to do so.