South Carolina losing its fifth straight game to Kentucky has cast an understandable pall over the fanbase and the season. Winning that contest was really important for a lot of reasons — continuing the program’s upward trajectory, bucking the national narrative, and just plain getting that monkey off the Gamecocks’ back. But it wasn’t meant to be, and now the blame game has been coming after anyone and everyone.
As the starting quarterback, it’s unsurprising Jake Bentley has taken his turn at being the scapegoat. What is surprising, though, is just how many fans have called for him to be benched. Now, it’s been a few days, so I’m sure some cooler heads have prevailed. But I nonetheless felt compelled to get some thoughts down about the current quarterback quandary, such as it is. I’m writing this not necessarily to absolve Bentley of all wrongdoing — he certainly has not been perfect — but to point out that football is a team sport, and there are multiple factors at play beyond just the quarterback.
The first, and most obvious in my opinion, is the continued lack of a running game. Oh, sure, it’ll show up against the likes of Coastal Carolina and Vanderbilt, but 54 yards versus Georgia and 128 yards against Kentucky (with Bentley as the second-leading rusher with 37 yards!) isn’t going to cut it. Bentley has been saddled with an inconsistent rushing attack since he became the full-time starter, and unfortunately, it hasn’t become any more reliable. It’s hard to settle down a rattled quarterback, set up play-action, or otherwise open up the offense when you can’t run the ball. Throw in the fact that Rico Dowdle, the current RB1, has given up the ball twice in critical situations and that makes life even more difficult.
That brings me to another point about the running game I’m still struggling to understand, which is the management of personnel. A.J. Turner, who filled in very well for an injured Dowdle last year, hasn’t seen nearly as much use this season as you’d expect. Mon Denson didn’t do anything special against Kentucky, but he was getting about four yards a pop and keeping the offense in manageable down and distance situations — and then virtually didn’t see the field in the second half. Finally, there’s the continuing mystery of how Ty’Son Williams is handled. Every time he gets a significant amount of snaps, he looks like the Gamecocks’ best all-around back, but then he’ll see little to no usage in the following game. (He didn’t play at all against Kentucky and it was revealed he was dealing with an ankle injury, but still — he’s been a scratch far too often for his production, and I can’t begin to guess why.)
Another factor has been wide receiver play, which was at its absolute worst against the Wildcats. The receiver corps is unquestionably the strength of this offense and the home of South Carolina’s most reliable stars, so it’s been disappointing to see players like Deebo Samuel and Bryan Edwards drop well-thrown balls that they’ve caught a hundred times before. (It’s especially troubling that Samuel seems to be having a sluggish start to the season overall.) Bentley hasn’t always been on target when he’s looked their way, but this team just doesn’t have the margin of error to afford its playmakers going into collective slumps — especially with that lack of a running game. Hopefully, Samuel and Edwards just picked a bad day to have a bad day. It happens, and they’ve certainly earned our trust with their past performances. Regardless, it’s clear Shi Smith needs to get the ball more, as he’s been the obvious MVP from that unit this season.
(As an aside, how on brand is it that South Carolina finally has a solid and steady offensive line to operate behind, but now the passing game is falling apart?)
Another factor has been special teams, specifically related to field position. While Samuel is back at kick return, he hasn’t been able to break one yet this year, and in large part his own blockers have been why. The Gamecocks haven’t gotten much out of Edwards at punt return either, for similar reasons. This is an offense that could really benefit from some shorter fields and just isn’t getting them. It’s puzzling, since the return game was much more effective last season with largely the same players, but hopefully that means it’s an easier issue to correct.
Finally, there’s a plain and simple truth that supersedes everything else: If you bench Bentley, there’s really no one else the Gamecocks can turn to. Michael Scarnecchia has been at South Carolina for about 11 years and should know the playbook as well as anyone, but has seen only a handful of garbage time snaps. Freshman Dakereon Joyner, a former Mr. Football who was an electric athlete in high school, is allegedly much too raw in the passing game. Behind Joyner, there’s another freshman in Jay Urich, a three-star dual-threat prospect from in-state Wrenn who we haven’t heard much about. For anyone who wants to see Bentley supplanted entirely, they’re going to have to wait until at least next year, when blue-chipper Ryan Hilinski joins the fold and could shake things up.
In the meantime, though, it would be nice to at least see some Wildcat packages for Joyner to bring a rushing element to the quarterback position. South Carolina is very easy to defend right now without a dual-threat and without a running game. Bentley isn’t incapable of scrambling, but it’s not his strength, and the staff is probably reluctant to call too many designed runs because of the injury risk and lack of experience behind him. Joyner may not be capable of taking the reins, but I see no reason why he couldn’t at least pitch in and help where he can.
At any rate, I understand where people are coming from, because it’s certainly been frustrating to watch Bentley at times. He’s a junior now, and appears to be stagnating at best and regressing at worst — six interceptions through four games is a tough statistic to swallow. Apart from perhaps the Outback Bowl against Michigan, he just hasn’t notched that signature win at quarterback for South Carolina. But I think there’s plenty of blame to go around, and the Gamecocks’ problems don’t start and end with him.