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South Carolina vs. Vanderbilt 2017: Five observations from Saturday’s 34-27 win

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Vanderbilt is never easy, but once again South Carolina finds a way to pull through

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at South Carolina Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

No matter how good South Carolina is or how bad Vanderbilt is in one particular season, the match up between the two is always too close for comfort — specifically for Gamecock fans.

Saturday was the fifth time in the last six seasons Vanderbilt had fought South Carolina to a result with less than a ten point margin. The 34-27 score also marks the most points Vanderbilt’s scored on South Carolina since 2014 when Dylan Thompson was having to outgun every offense he faced because South Carolina’s defense was a roaring trash heap.

For whatever reason South Carolina can never seem to put away Vanderbilt. But I digress, let’s focus on the matter at hand. Five things I noticed in this latest wacky installment against Vanderbilt.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at South Carolina Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Jake Bentley’s best

2017 for Jake Bentley has been interesting to say the least. His raw numbers would indicate he’s having a fine season, but when you watch him on film the inconsistencies in accuracy and decision making are more than apparent. Coming in to Saturday’s game, I thought the last definitive “good” game Bentley played was against NC State.

However Saturday he topped that NC State performance by getting things done on the ground and through the air. On both zone-read scores the Vandy defense sold all in on the dive, leaving Bentley to show some nice open-field maneuvers to score two touchdowns.

Through the air Bentley showed great pocket presence and consistently delivered the ball with accuracy. It was refreshing to see Bentley will the team to victory after having some lackluster weeks prior. He’ll need to carry every bit of that performance over if South Carolina wants a prayer of beating Georgia next week.

AJ Turner... No. 1?

South Carolina’s run game has been a big weakness throughout the season. Credit much of that to a banged up offensive line that struggles to keep running lanes open, but outside of a few splash moments from Ty’son Williams the Gamecocks have not found an answer for the run game — until now it would seem.

This makes two games in a row now where AJ Turner, who started the season as the third-string back, has emerged as a consistent threat out of the backfield. Against Tennessee he replaced an injured Rico Dowdle and picked up the game’s only touchdown and this week rushed for 121 yards with another touchdown.

Prior to the Vandy game Tuner had rushed for 60 yards on 20 carries. In his last two games he’s rushed for 207 yards on 29 carries. I don’t think two games makes a trend, but Turner has given the offense a new dimension that I thought Ty’son Williams was going to give them.

Disappearing pass rush

The Tennessee game had given me an inkling of hope South Carolina had finally figured out how to generate a pass rush. DJ Wonnum had a great game, while other rotation guys like Taylor Stallworth and Kier Thomas had started to show their ability to make splash plays in the backfield as well.

Vanderbilt wasn’t having any of that. South Carolina had just two pressures on 49 pass attempts by Kyle Shurmur and they both came on blitzes by linebackers. Granted, Vanderbilt was doing whatever they could to get the ball out of Shurmur’s hands in less than two seconds but that same tactic didn’t stop SC from getting pressure at Tennessee a week ago.

Vanderbilt was able to pass for four touchdowns because Shurmur could sit in the pocket at his own leisure to dink-and-dunk all around South Carolina’s defense. The pass rush has been inconsistent at points, but against Vandy I thought they’d at least be able to get pressure with four guys. I was wrong.

Shi Smith is Deebo Jr.

It’s hard not to watch No. 13 play football and see resemblances to No. 1 for South Carolina. They’re around the same height, weight, both share similar skill sets and even grew up in the Spartanburg area of South Carolina. Shi Smith is young, but you can’t help but see a little Deebo in the budding freshman from Union, SC.

Smith put together his best day in a Gamecock uniform Saturday, catching five passes for 76 yards and a touchdown where he absolutely roasted a nickel corner on a fade route from the slot. The coaching staff doesn’t have him returning kicks or running jet sweeps yet, but he looks to have the pass catching part down.

More importantly, the emergence of Smith has helped ease the pain of losing Deebo. I have my doubts if he ever returns this season, so if he doesn’t it should give Gamecock fans some piece of mind there is some talent in the reserves if Deebo decides to declare for the draft.

Targeting palooza

It’s hard not to walk away from Saturday’s game and have your understanding of what a targeting penalty is totally altered. Here’s what I understand: if you lead with the crown of your helmet and strike an opponent with it head on, that’s targeting. However, the more I watch football the less I seem to understand about the rule.

The first targeting penalty Vanderbilt was given they guy led with his shoulder, not his head. But he was ejected. The second targeting penalty was a late hit on Bentley for sure, but I though the head to head contact was accidental. But that player was ejected too.

But later in the game Bentley slid down by the sideline and a Vanderbilt player absolutely ducked his head and clocked Bentley while he was on the ground. No targeting. While I understand why we need the rule, the officials can never seem to get it right. It makes the viewing experience very frustrating and I don’t know how we fix a rule where it’s up to an official’s opinion to make the right call.