South Carolina rolling: Young players spark Gamecocks attack
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina’s once-sluggish offense is getting younger — and more productive — almost every week.
Behind freshmen quarterback Jake Bentley, running back Rico Dowdle and receiver Bryan Edwards, the Gamecocks (4-4, 2-4 Southeastern Conference) have averaged 29 points in their past two wins after scoring only 14 points a game through their first six contests.
Bentley had two touchdown passes, Dowdle rushed for 127 yards and Edwards caught a 17-yard TD in South Carolina’s 24-21 stunner over then-No. 18 Tennessee this past Saturday. The trio will try to lead the Gamecocks to a third consecutive victory — the team only had three wins in 2015 — when they face last-place Missouri (2-6, 0-4) on Saturday.
“It’s very exciting,” said tight end Hayden Hurst, a 23-year-old sophomore. “Seeing these younger guys come along quick, there’s going to be a lot of special things going on around here.”
It has already been nothing like the Gamecocks endured in the season’s first six games. With senior Perry Orth and freshman Brandon McIlwain trading off quarterback starts, South Carolina’s attack never got going.
South Carolina only had two TD passes in the season’s first half, both of those thrown by Orth in a failed comeback at Mississippi State last month. The running game, led by A.J. Turner and David Williams, also had struggled to find room to move.
The Gamecocks quickly fell to last in SEC scoring and rushing, spots they still occupy now despite the past two victories.
Things, though, are trending upward.
South Carolina put up its most yards (395) and points (34) in the 34-28 win over UMass in Bentley’s first college start two games ago. He figured to have a harder time moving the team against Tennessee, but led the Gamecocks to a touchdown the first time they had the ball. South Carolina never lost the lead.
Dowdle had sports hernia surgery in the offseason and hurt his groin in August. After missing the first four games, Dowdle really got going against UMass with team-high 87 yards rushing.
He notched his first 100-yard game in college last week, continually sweeping around Tennessee’s front line.
Hurst remembered watching Dowdle make a sharp cut to escape a South Carolina linebacker during informal drills.
“I stood back and told Perry (Orth), ‘He’s going to be special,’” Hurst said.
Edwards, a 6-foot-3, 210 wideout from Conway, was one of the top in-state prospects who briefly waivered from his long-held South Carolina commitment after coach Steve Spurrier’s mid-year departure and the Gamecocks 3-9 season.
Muschamp made landing Edwards, among five finalists for South Carolina’s “Mr. Football” award for the state’s top player, a priority and it’s paying this fall. He had eight catches for 101 yards in his debut, a win over Vanderbilt to start the season. He has caught TD passes each of the past two weeks, developing a quick and obvious chemistry with fellow freshman Bentley.
“I’d rather play a young talented guy that’s got a bright future than play an older guy that’s not as talented,” Muschamp said. “That’s what it’s about. That’s where we are right now.”
Bentley, Dowdle and Edwards are unavailable to speak with reporters, per Muschamp’s policy.
Muschamp said the players are talking bowl game and understand beating Missouri is an essential step. The Gamecocks have one more home game with FCS opponent Western Carolina on Nov. 19 between road trips to No. 10 Florida and No. 3 Clemson
Missouri has lost 10 straight SEC games, dating to its 24-10 win over the Gamecocks last year. First-year coach Barry Odom is also trying to blend young players with veterans to turn around his program.
“I know they’re hungry to win. They’re hurt,” he said. “But I know we’ve been through a lot together. We know we’re going to stay the course.”
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