The timing couldn’t have been better.
On the heels of an open week, with bowl eligibility at stake, and a chance to remain relevant in the SEC East race into the final month of the regular season, South Carolina fully unleashed another facet to an offense that shows every sign of rounding into shape just in time for the stretch run.
We’d seen bits and pieces of it before — a few scrambles to aid the second-half comeback against Louisiana Tech, a few designed runs to fuel an offense that chewed up clock in the second half two weeks ago against Tennessee. But Saturday against Vanderbilt, South Carolina finally put quarterback Jake Bentley on the move in earnest, and the result was a two-touchdown rushing effort that added a different dynamic to this Gamecocks attack.
You could see it coming, in the way South Carolina offensive coordinator Kurt Roper called Bentley’s number on runs in the Tennessee game in which the quarterback keepers helped the Gamecocks dominate yardage and time of possession after halftime. And with an open week, you had a feeling the Gamecocks would find a way to make better use of their quarterback’s athleticism, especially with the skill positions hamstrung to a degree due to the losses of receiver Deebo Samuel and tailback Rico Dowdle.
The result was a dagger to a Vanderbilt defense that’s been struggling enough as it is. Bentley, who had rushed for a total of 14 yards before Saturday, picked up 47 against the Commodores, including scoring dashes of 19 and 11. The second touchdown run proved the hammer in a 34-27 victory. This on an afternoon when the Gamecocks rushed for 212 as a team, with tailback A.J. Turner leading the way with 121.
OK — it was against Vanderbilt, a defense that’s been lit up like a Christmas tree over the past five weeks. And South Carolina’s defense, which lives off denying opponents the big play, didn’t exactly perform up to its usual standard against a foe that entered the game ranked 13th in the league in scoring offense. You want to nitpick, there’s plenty to choose from, especially with big, bad and unbeaten Georgia looking between the hedges next weekend.
But this offense clearly appears to be trending in the right direction, given the results on display in five of South Carolina’s past six halves of football, the opening two quarters at Tennessee excepted. There always have been flashes, like the respective first halves against North Carolina State and Texas A&M, but now we have two complete games in three outings, combined with a second half at Rocky Top that was dominant in time of possession if not points. Given some of the bumps in the road (hello, Kentucky), that’s not a bad place to be.
Certainly, it was easy to like what South Carolina did Saturday, even against that porous Vanderbilt defense. Bentley’s second touchdown run was picture-perfect in the way tight end Hayden Hurst — whose value as a blocker grows every week — cleared the way ahead. From a passing standpoint, the quarterback seems to have worked through his accuracy issues. The offensive line looks healthy again. Kicker Parker White, who connected on two of three attempts Saturday (his miss was from 47), continues to show increased confidence, both in body language and results.
This is more like the offense most Gamecocks fans expected to start the season. Yes, Georgia is just destroying people right now, and Clemson looked like its old self Saturday with Kelly Bryant back behind center. But given what we’ve seen in their past three games, this looks every bit like a Gamecocks team that at least can dispatch both FCS Wofford and dysfunctional Florida (with or without coach Jim McElwain) at home to cap an eight-win season that’s a downright miracle given where this group was 23 months ago.
And so much of it goes back to Bentley, whose ascension to the starting role last year altered not just the direction of a season, but also a program. The quarterback is off and running, and more dangerous than ever. The same might be said of South Carolina as well.