For much of the season, South Carolina has struggled in one area or another, be it penalties or dropped passes. Even in victories, they left something to be desired.
But for one night at least, the Gamecocks (4-3, 3-3 SEC) seemingly delivered in a way even they haven’t seen this season.
Quarterback Jake Bentley called the 27-24 win over Tennessee “one of the most complete games we’ve played this year.”
Coach Will Muschamp agreed.
“We ran the ball really effectively. I thought for the first time in a league game, our backs made people miss,” he said. “Our offensive line has been much improved this year. We haven’t run the ball as much as I’ve wanted to. We’ve improved on the offensive line, I’ve been pleased with that, but our backs, they made some guys miss, and in our league, that’s what you have to do.”
They ran for 224 yards on 40 carries, committed just 2 penalties and were largely efficient passing despite holding the ball for nearly 17 minutes fewer than the Vols.
Running back Rico Dowdle delivered 140 yards on just 14 carries, a season-high feat, with a touchdown. Dowdle has now rushed for more than 100 yards three times this season and six times in his Gamecocks career. He helped the offense deliver 376 total yards.
Muschamp still didn’t have an answer for the ongoing slow starts, and he even said the coaching staff has exhausted every adjustment possible to fix the problem. But in what is becoming a trademark of this team, they came on strong in the third quarter and kept the momentum going into the fourth.
Pass rusher D.J. Wonnum’s return came at precisely the right time. The Gamecocks missed a consistent pass rush for much of the season, but it was his strip-sack of Jarrett Guarantano that all but decided the game late in the fourth quarter.
“It’s great to have him back,” Muschamp said, letting out an audible sigh. “He’s a great football player, but he also brings a presence to your football team in terms of leadership and calmness, and how we play. Guys look to D.J. when things maybe aren’t going so well. D.J.’s one of those players, as a coach, you certainly breathe a little easier when he’s around.”
Interestingly, Muschamp admitted that moving offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon down to the sidelines from the press box helped solve some of the issues around dropped passes that was a particular problem in the loss to Texas A&M. Communicating between series and calming nerves was a key difference in the change, he said.
Muschamp appeared to accept criticism directed toward Bentley when he was asked if Bentley gained back “goodwill” from the fan base after the scramble for a two-point conversion in the second half.
“If you’re the quarterback at South Carolina and it’s not going well, you’re going to be the brunt of the criticism, and he understands that, that’s part of the game,” Muschamp said. “If they buy a ticket, they can boo all they want for all I care. It’s never helped me coach any better, it’s never helped him play any better, it doesn’t help in recruiting. But if they want to buy a ticket and boo, that’s fine, all good.”
For all of their shortcomings, there is one constant. Close games have more often than not gone their way.
“We’ve been very good in one-score games around here, I don’t know what the record is, but you can check it,” Muschamp said. “Our guys understand in close games how to win, and it certainly showed again tonight.”
The record is 12-4 under Muschamp in one-score games, and the Tennessee series continues to be tight. Since 2012, every game has been decided by six points or fewer, and most have been by three or fewer.
The Gamecocks are entering the road-heavy part of their schedule with games at Ole Miss, at Florida, home against Chattanooga and at Clemson to wrap up the regular season.
Ole Miss and Florida are 5-3 and 6-2 and the kinds of teams the Gamecocks should have a chance to beat in the fourth quarter, something they did Saturday night with the score at 24-24 after three.
The injury list is shorter than it has been in a while, and improving.
With an expected announcement coming soon about a Dec. 1 game to fill out the schedule, the Gamecocks are closing in on bowl berth possibilities. Winning three of the next four would make those decisions more appealing to those booing fans looking for more.