COLUMBIA - What South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley couldn't do with his arm on Saturday he more than made up for with his legs.
The sophomore signal caller uncharacteristically threw three interceptions against a struggling University of Florida squad but ran it in for two scores. Sophomore running back Mon Denson added the first two rushing touchdowns of his USC career as the Gamecocks held on for a 28-20 win at Williams-Brice Stadium.
"Well, we made it probably a little bit more interesting than it needed to be. (USC athletic director) Coach (Ray) Tanner has been complaining about concessions, so I figured we'd keep some people around until the end of the game," USC head coach Will Muschamp quipped about a game that wasn't decided until a Jamyest Williams interception with 1:06 to go.
With the win, the Gamecocks moved to 7-3 overall, eclipsing last year's win total with two games to play. USC also clinched at least a tie for second place in the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division, finishing at 5-3 for just the eighth winning conference record since joining the SEC in 1992.
While Muschamp has the Gamecocks on a strong upward trend in his second season as head coach, UF is trending in the opposite direction. The loss drops the Gators to 3-6 overall and 3-5 in the SEC, the program's third losing conference record since 2011.
Muschamp cited "the culture within our program" as the key to his team being able to overcome injuries and adversity in a year when other teams have struggled with those circumstances.
"We have a 'so what, now what' mentality and that's part of who we are and what we are moving forward," Muschamp said. "That's true in life. To me, you talk about progress. This football team was 3-9 two years ago, 3-9! I just complimented them in the locker room. You talk about investing in what you need to do to be successful -- to buy into a new coaching staff, to buy into maybe a different way of doing things. I'm really proud of how this football team has invested in us and invested in themselves and each other because there's a lot of progress being made.
"We're not happy with where we are. Don't misunderstand what I'm saying. We have a lot more out there for us moving forward, but I'm very proud of the progress we've been able to make."
USC continued the trend of teams piling up rushing yardage against the beleaguered Gator defense, rushing for a net of 220 yards on 47 attempts. A.J. Turner led the way with 136 yards on 22 carries while Denson closed with 13 rushes for 61 yards, including touchdown runs of 24 and 12 yards.
"I had an opportunity to get a lot of space today," Turner said. "I felt like (tight end) Hayden (Hurst) and Jake really did a good job blocking as well as our O-linemen. You have to give credit to them. Without them, I wouldn't be able to do what I did. I just ran to the open holes and ran hard."
With Turner and Denson seeing so much run success, former Crestwood High School standout Ty'Son Williams did not take the field against the Gators.
"Ty'Son is fine," Muschamp said. "A.J. was running extremely well. Mon was playing extremely well. I just talked to Ty'Son in the locker room and he's good. Certainly we're going to need him moving forward."
Along with his run game success against the Gators, Turner played a key role in the pass game, hauling in three passes for a career-high 36 yards. All three of Turner's receptions resulted in Gamecock first downs, including a third-down conversion.
Bentley lost 15 yards on three sacks to pull his rushing numbers down to 29 yards on eight runs, including a long of 17 yards and scoring runs of four and seven yards. His final passing numbers were 19 of 29 for 249 yards with the three picks.
"It was total miscommunication on the first one. It was completely my fault on that one," Bentley said. "The second one, I didn't see the guy. Hayden was completely open but just didn't see the rotation. Despite that, Hayden did a good job of recognizing what we were doing and just running across the field. The third one just can't happen. I need to just throw it away and take care of the ball. It was a bad decision, but at the end of the day we won and it's easier to learn from a bad decision with a win than the other way around. You just have to learn from it."
Of the three UF interceptions, the first exemplified a season of struggle and chaos for a program that has won the last two SEC East titles. With the Gamecocks clinging to a 7-0 lead and taking over at their own 4 after a 59-yard Johnny Townsend punt, Bentley lofted a pass that UF defensive back C.J. Henderson intercepted at the Gamecock 25. With Henderson headed to the end zone for a potential game-tying score, Hurst came up with the tackle at the 1, forcing a fumble that Turner recovered in the end zone and ran back out to the 24.
The Gators would force a punt, which would be fumbled by Brandon Powell, with Javon Charleston recovering at the UF 13. Then, just when it seemed the Gamecocks were about to take charge, Bentley threw a second interception, which Chauncey Gardner Jr. returned from the 1 to the Gators' 47.
UF got three points off the Gamecocks' only fumble of the game on a play where a punted ball hit a USC player and was recovered by Rayshad Jackson at the USC 38. UF starting quarterback Malik Zaire completed three passes to get the ball to the 12 before Eddy Piniero came on for a 29-yard field goal, cutting the lead to 14-3 with 14:02 left in the half.
Zaire would come out for a play on the Gators' next possession, with Feleipe Franks coming on to throw an incomplete pass, then reenter. Zaire cut to his left and then fell to the ground untouched for a 6-yard loss. Zaire, who rushed six times for 21 yards and completed 7-of-14 passes for 49 yards, would not make it back onto the field for the remainder of the game.
"After he collapsed, we took him out because of the severity of the injury," said UF interim head coach Randy Shannon, who would not give injury specifics until he could contact Zaire's family. "This is not the NFL (National Football League), this is college football and no matter what the injury is, we can't allow guys to put themselves in harm's way.He wanted to go back in. He came out at halftime and I came up to him and said, 'I can't do it to you. We will be OK, we will be all right.' He just started crying. I cannot put anyone in that situation."
With Zaire out, Franks came on to complete the 7-play, 46-yard drive that ended with a 37-yard Pineiro field goal.
Denson's 12-yard scoring run capped an 8-play, 75-yard drive and put USC up 21-6 with 4:07 left in the half. Most of the yardage came on two plays, a 14-yard Or'Tre Smith reception and a 13-yard Turner run.
UF answered with a 7-play, 75-yard drive that ended in the Gators' first touchdown of the day. Franks hooked up with Josh Hammond for 37 yards to open the drive and Lamical Perine closed the drive with an 18-yard run that closed the gap to 21-13 heading into halftime.
Trailing 28-13 late,the Gators added another "did that really happen" moment as Franks scrambled and found a wide open Moral Stephens streaking toward the end zone. As Stephens gathered in the pass, he ran into the only person between him and the goal line, teammate Mark Thompson, with Stephens going down at the 1 for a 63-yard gain. UF would score on the next play, with Thompson running it in for the ultimate vulture touchdown, but not before almost losing it on a fumble that was ruled to have come after Thompson crossed the goal line.