By Josh Hyber/Photos by Jenny Dilworth
Charlotte, N.C. — Once Jake Bentley shook free from NC State linebacker Freddie Phillips Jr., the South Carolina quarterback rolled right, picked up steam around midfield and planted his feet at the 45-yard line.
Bank of America Stadium, fans of both the Gamecocks and Wolfpack, took a collective gasp.
Then the sophomore unleashed, heaving a pass toward the ‘A’ in Carolina in the Gamecocks’ end zone.
Do-it-all speedster Deebo Samuel did the rest.
“If he had dropped that pass in the end zone I might have killed him,” Bentley said afterward. “But it was an unbelievable catch and an unbelievable play.”
Samuel extended his left arm and snagged the pass one-handed for a touchdown to give the Gamecocks (1-0) the lead for good minutes into the third quarter of the team’s 35-28 victory over NC State (0-1) on Saturday.
In all, Samuel touched the ball seven times against the Wolfpack and finished with 185 all-purpose yards. The 6-foot, 215-pounder caught five passes for 83 yards and two scores, had one run for five yards and, before the ESPN broadcast even switched over from the Clemson-Kent State telecast, returned the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown.
“Honestly, he won’t ever say it, because he’s a humble guy, but I don’t think anyone in the country can guard him,” Bentley said of Samuel. “Especially the way we’ve trained together. I know where to put the ball when he’s covered … where he can make a play on it.
“That’s what we did today.”
Samuel had enough big-time plays on Saturday to fill a highlight reel himself — from the opening kickoff touchdown to the 19-yard reception he had midway through the fourth quarter. One play particular, the 39-yard touchdown snag, was one SC linebacker Skai Moore said should make SportsCenter’s “Top 10” plays of the day.
Of the kickoff return, Samuel said the Gamecocks knew NC State’s coverage unit liked to run down and stay on the left side of the field.
“So we put in some to get to the left and we opened up the crease,” he said.
“We expected that to happen,” Gamecock linebacker Skai Moore said. “Because we’d been talking about that all week … A lot of guys called that on the sideline before it happened ... It definitely brought the juice to the team, for sure.”
Said the coach, “Zero seconds come off the clock, basically, and we’re down seven. It’s not ideal.”
South Carolina offensive lineman Malik Young said Samuel’s return gave the Gamecocks the momentum it needed to win.
NC State didn’t boot another kickoff in Samuel’s direction for the rest of the game.
Samuel’s second touchdown, which came on a 6-yard reception at the 10:02 mark of the second quarter, broke a 14-all tie.
“It just goes back to reps during summer and reps during offseason to really just … when everybody else isn't working, we’re out there throwing and hanging out,” Bentley said. “Just the little things that make a quarterback and receiver combination great.”
And just as Samuel made a play to start the first half, he did so to start the second half as well.
NC State quarterback Ryan Finley connected with Jakobi Meyers for a 4-yard touchdownto tie the score at 21 nine seconds before halftime, but Samuel had an answer: the one-handed 39-yard touchdown.
The play, in which Bentley faked a handoff, was designed for the quarterback to throw a pass to tight end Hayden Hurst.
But the Gamecock tight end was covered.
“I got my head around and saw (a defensive lineman) in my face so I gave him a stiff-arm,” Bentley said. “I was about to run and I saw Deebo just running across the field. I just gave him a chance and he made an unbelievable play. It’s great to have guys like him out there.”
Said Samuel, “We work on scramble drill every other day at practice. So when he rolled out, I just kept on going with the route and I saw the ball coming and just had to make a play.”
He did, and SC took a 28-21 lead — one it wouldn’t relinquish — with 11:54 to go in the third quarter.
The Inman, S.C. product wasn’t done.
On the team’s next drive, after SC linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams recovered a fumble at NC State’s 13-yard line, Samuel caught a first-and-15 pass on slant route for 11 yards.
Then, with the Gamecocks facing a first and 10 from their own 6-yard line clinging to a 35-28 lead midway through the fourth quarter, Bentley and Samuel hooked up for a 19-yard connection.
“We knew (Samuel) is a very good football player,” Doeren said. “I have great respect for him.”