COLUMBIA - In football, if a team is struggling on offense the most popular person on the field is likely to be the backup quarterback.
University of South Carolina starting quarterback Jake Bentley, returning to the field after sitting out the …
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University of South Carolina starting quarterback Jake Bentley, returning to the field after sitting out the previous week's 37-35 win over Missouri with a knee injury, found that out early in Saturday's Southeastern Conference game against Texas A&M.
South Carolina's defense had stopped Texas A&M's offense on its first two possessions. Crestwood High School alum Ty'Son Williams had just found two big holes in the Aggies' vaunted run defense for runs of 14 and 27 yards.
The Gamecocks were in scoring position, with two shots from the TAMU 8, Bentley overthrew Josh Vann in the end zone and then threw an interception to Charles Oliver on a second attempt to connect with Vann.
After completing just three of his first 10 passes for 29 yards and being well off target on many of his misfires, the Gamecocks' junior signal caller was hearing boos from the Williams-Brice Stadium crowd.
It didn't help that the Aggies drove 45 yards in 10 plays after the end zone pick to set up the game's first points on a 52-yard Seth Small field goal in what would end up to be a 26-23 TAMU win.
Apparently many among the USC faithful felt that redshirt senior Michael Scarnecchia, who led the Gamecocks to victory last week in Bentley's absence, should have been under center against the Aggies for a potential encore performance.
Bentley took the fans' negative reaction in stride and chalked it up to a shared goal of coming away with a win each time Bentley and his teammates take the field.
"That's life. I mean that's really the way that I've always been brought up, (that) you can't worry about outside influences," Bentley said. "Other people are going to try to come at you each and every way. You just have to focus on what you believe in and surround yourself with great people. My teammates, everyone of them came up to me and said they had my back, keep my head up and keep going. I'd say the support from my teammates had the biggest impact.
"Obviously it's disappointing to hear that from the fans, but they just want to win too, and so do I. Having the support from my teammates and to see them rally for me and everything was great for me to see."
One of those teammates was junior wide receiver Chavis Dawkins, who made his first reception of the season a memorable one, hauling in a 33-yard touchdown pass on a flea flicker. The score, followed by the second of two successful 2-point conversion passes from Bentley to Bryan Edwards, pulled the Gamecocks back from a 16-0 deficit to a 16-16 tie heading into the final quarter.
"He's a fighter," Dawkins said of Bentley. "He's not just going to sit out because of a knee. He told me Monday that he was going to play even if his leg was broken. That's just how he is, and I look up to him for that."
Of course, Bentley wasn't totally at fault. He took a long shot down field about midway through the second half and put the ball right in Edwards' hands. Had Edwards brought the ball in it would have likely equaled six points for the Gamecocks. Instead, the ball squirted out of Edwards' hands.
While Edwards' was not the only dropped ball of the day by the Gamecock receiving corps, Bentley surely could have used some completions on those plays. The USC signal caller went six for 17 for 46 yards with the one very costly interception in the first half before rallying to complete 11 of 18 second-half passes for 177 yards and three scores in the second half. Bentley's third-quarter numbers were seven of 10 for 130 yards and two scores.
Though dropped passes, or something as simple as a receiver not looking the ball in or starting to make a move before making the reception, can be frustrating at times for a quarterback, Bentley said he has not personally addressed the issue with his receivers.
"They know that I'm going to keep throwing it to them and they know that I've got all the faith in the world (in them)," Bentley said. "Maybe it's something that we as a group have got to work on at practice. Just throw more after practice and do whatever it takes to kind of stop this from happening. But they know I have complete faith in them and I'm going to keep throwing it up to them and keep allowing them to go make plays. It's not just them, it's ball placement and a lot of other things that go into it."
Bentley said the difference in the Gamecocks' offensive play through a scoreless first half to a 16-point third quarter was simply better execution.
"I think we just executed better, started to hit some big plays, started to run the ball a little bit better," Bentley said. "During the first half it was just self-inflicted stuff, missing a throw or dropping something or missing a block. Things here and there that just can't happen, and obviously you can't throw an interception in the red zone, kind of the big thing that stands out. But I think we just kind of said enough is enough and knew we had to go out there and play better."
While Bentley's 17 completions in 35 attempts for 223 yards was nothing near spectacular, he still did what USC head coach Will Muschamp said that Bentley would do -- give the Gamecocks a chance to win.
"He's a battler. He's a competitor," said Muschamp, who put any quarterback debate to sleep early last week by announcing that Bentley, if healthy, would be under center on Saturday. "He competes in front of 80,000 people. That position is going to get criticized, just like my position. That's part of it, and he understands it just as much as anybody in the room, and so do I. He battled his (butt) off and put us in a situation to win the football game."
After Scarnecchia's success in the first start of his USC career, Muschamp said he had confidence in both of his quarterbacks and their ability to lead the Gamecocks to a win. Yet even with Bentley's early struggles, Muschamp said there was never a consideration given to pulling Bentley in favor of Scarnecchia.
"Not really. We just needed to settle down with some decision making and a couple of balls here and there," Muschamp said. "Other than that, he put us in a situation to win the game. We just need to play better around him."
After his start last week against Missouri, Scarnecchia spoke of how supportive and encouraging Bentley had been to him throughout the game. Even though it seemed many in attendance were wanting to see Scarnecchia on the field, at least during Bentley's early struggles, Bentley said Scarnecchia was just as encouraging and supportive to him.
"Scar is an unbelievable teammate, unbelievable friend," Bentley said. "He supports me no matter what, and it's always great to have him around me. After every drive he was coming over, letting me know what he saw, what he thinks is going to be open. There's just different things throughout the game but it's just really great to have him and he just helped me out all game."
Bentley said his efforts to jump and dive for extra yardage while playing on a braced knee during the Gamecocks' big third quarter, and even excitedly going to the crowd after one score, were not done in an effort to prove himself or impress anyone.
"No, honestly I just wanted to win for my teammates and do whatever it takes," Bentley said. "Whether it's jumping over a guy, running through a guy, just whatever it takes to win, and I think that's the mindset of everyone on the team. That what's frustrating when you lose, because you want to do everything that you can to win. You get fired up just because it's battling back and just enjoying the game."
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