A week after South Carolina was left searching for answers in the wake of a loss to Kentucky, the talk of Saturday’s game against Missouri was about a backup quarterback.
Michael Scarnecchia threw for three touchdowns in a 37-35 victory over the Tigers at Williams-Brice Stadium, and at least for a week South Carolina’s up-and-down season looked up again. Given the lingering knee injury to starting quarterback Jake Bentley, Scarnecchia provided a sigh of relief to a program looking for traction. Scarnecchia looked nothing like a QB making his first start, and he had more completions (20) against Mizzou than he had career attempts (13) entering the game.
“He’s never been asked to do it on that stage,” coach Will Muschamp said. “You talk about being a first-time starter, and under that weather, that’s a pretty daunting task and he did a fantastic job.”
Scarnecchia said Bentley helped him with reads, what he missed, and was a great teammate.
“I was not nervous,” Scarnecchia said. “I felt confident in my abilities and how the coaches prepared me and the rest of the team, so I felt good with my game plan and everything. Knowing when to play, game time. Jake was getting reps this week and I was getting reps this week. It was just being ready, because you never know what is going to happen. When it came to the decision, I was ready.”
Muschamp hit on the positives, namely red-zone defense in the first half and third-down defense in the second half. Notably, the Gamecocks kept one of the premier quarterbacks in the SEC, Drew Lock, largely in check with a 17-for-36 day passing for 204 yards and two interceptions.
“We kept chipping away, we kept chipping away, we played through the weather, which was tough at times,” Muschamp said about a game which saw a heavy downpour and two delays because of lightning.
Muschamp shrugged when asked about Missouri kicker Tucker McCann hitting a 57-yard field goal to put pressure on Scarnecchia and South Carolina kicker Parker White to answer. White seems to have rebounded from a disappointing 2017 season when he was 14-for-25. This year, he has made 8-of-9; Saturday he made field goals from 42, 42 and 33 yards, the last being the winner.
“We’ve been in situations where you could question how we responded,” Muschamp said. “I’ve never once questioned our effort. Not one time in five ballgames this year (have I) questioned our effort. Sometimes I’ve questioned our focus, sometimes I’ve questioned our discipline a little bit, our composure. But I’ve never questioned the effort this football team has played with. Now you’ve coupled that with (the fact that we) made some plays, made some smart decisions, had really good focus with what we need to do, and just do the simple things better. That’s what we need to continue to focus on.”
South Carolina has once again returned to its familiar level during his era. Muschamp has won every game against Missouri as the Gamecocks coach. Now they’ll try to do something they’ve done only twice in 2 1/2 seasons: Win two straight SEC games. The first time was in 2016 against No. 18 Tennessee and Missouri. Then last year they won three straight, against Arkansas, Tennessee and Vanderbilt.
Beating a Texas A&M team that on Saturday neutralized Kentucky appears to be a tall order. Muschamp stresses that young players are coming along so the team has better depth. In the Missouri game, for example, once the defense held and the offense found its footing, South Carolina could turn the game in the second half.
Scarnecchia is a capable fill-in for Bentley, especially if he controls the turnovers, something Bentley has struggled to do in conference losses. But the Gamecocks’ run defense — even if the red zone defense made it look serviceable — has many holes, and doesn’t appear to be turning soon. The Gamecocks were 12th in the SEC in rush defense entering the Missouri game, then gave up 286 yards on the ground.
They will get a test next week from a top-five SEC running game in Texas A&M and Trayveon Williams, who had 24 carries for 138 yards and a winning touchdown in overtime to beat Kentucky.
For the third time this season, South Carolina has a chance to step up and assert itself in the top half of the SEC.