For the first time in the Will Muschamp era, South Carolina scored more than two offensive touchdowns in a game.
In a 34-28 win on Saturday over Massachusetts, the Gamecocks showed the type of offensive production that has been lacking this season for various reasons. They did so with a true freshman making his starting debut: quarterback Jake Bentley.
Bentley, who is best known as the first quarterback since John David Booty to skip his senior year of high school in order to play major college football, appeared headed for a redshirt until he found himself in the middle of a competition for the starting job during South Carolina's open date following an Oct. 9 loss to Georgia. He wound up earning the chance to start the Gamecocks' next game and had a solid debut, helping them beat the Minutemen.
On Saturday, the Opelika (Alabama) High School product appears likely to make his first SEC start when South Carolina hosts Tennessee. Not bad for a guy who, under traditional circumstances, would be enjoying his senior year of high school right now instead of playing in the SEC.
While the Gamecocks' Week 9 opponent was nowhere near SEC-caliber, Bentley performed well. He was efficient, accurate and protected the football, finishing 17-for-26 passing for 201 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Both of his scoring tosses were well-placed passes, and Bentley occasionally showed off his ability to throw the ball downfield.
"I think he did some nice things," Muschamp said Sunday. "There are some communication things that we need to handle a little better from signals and things, cleaning some of those things up as much as anything. A couple times in some intermediate balls we didn't clear the windows with some things as far as some throws that were made. We'll continue to work through that and develop. That and the more snaps and the reps and the culmination of all those things happen, he'll continue to improve."
For the remainder of the season, Bentley and fellow true freshman Brandon McIlwain will be the Gamecocks' quarterbacks. McIlwain saw five snaps, all rushes, in Saturday's win. He'll continue to see time and, in Muschamp's words, compete with Bentley.
In March, Bentley committed to South Carolina, where Muschamp took over just months earlier. Originally a class of 2017 recruit, Muschamp said he was fired up about having Bentley in the class. Just two months prior to Bentley's commitment, Muschamp hired his father, Bobby Bentley, as South Carolina's running backs coach. Bobby Bentley spent the previous two seasons as an offensive analyst at Auburn, where Muschamp was the defensive coordinator.
Jake wanted to finish out his senior year at Opelika, not at a new school. So the family had to make a decision between letting Jake stay in Opelika (by living with the high school's head football coach, Brian Blackmon), or potentially graduating early since Bentley was on track to fulfill all his graduation requirements by the end of his junior year.
It required Jake transferring out of Opelika during his final semester to a high school in Spartanburg, South Carolina (Muschamp said that Opelika "didn't really feel it was good for their situation there" for Jake to take the step of graduating early to pursue this path). Once the family got everything cleared with the NCAA clearinghouse, he was able to finish school in Spartanburg and join the Gamecocks in time for summer school.
"Well, it's a very close-knit family and they didn't want Jake to stay in Alabama," Muschamp said. "They wanted him to be here. And that's really how the conversation all started ... They wanted to be together and it just so happens that it worked out that way. ... They came to me and asked if I would support it if it could happen. Certainly, anytime you can add a good football player to your roster, that's something you want to do."
With McIlwain already on campus (he enrolled in January and participated in spring football and was a clear contender for the starting job) it seemed likely that Bentley would wind up redshirting. Coming out of preseason training camp in August, Muschamp said McIlwain and veteran Perry Orth were ahead of Bentley.
However, at Sunday practices, the players who don't log many snaps in the previous day's game -- generally less than 30, Muschamp said -- scrimmage. Over the course of the season's first half, Bentley showed progress, enough that as the open date approached, and South Carolina's offensive struggles continued, the staff decided to give him a chance.
"At the end of the day, we felt like he had progressed very well," Muschamp said.
After Bentley's successful debut, one reporter asked Muschamp on Saturday if Bentley's play signified that he has the potential to have the kind of career Connor Shaw did when he was quarterbacking the Gamecocks.
Muschamp sighed, shook his head and said "Let's just take one day at a time. We beat UMass. It gets tougher next week."