By Jeff Owens/Photo by Allen Sharpe
Will Muschamp started his stint as South Carolina's head coach the way he wanted last season — with a season-opening SEC victory on the road.
Behind a strong defensive effort, South Carolina squeaked by Vanderbilt 13-10 in Nashville in Muschamp's first game as the Gamecocks' head coach.
But a week later, it lost to Mississippi State in Starkville . Two weeks later, it lost in Lexington, Ky. as part of a 2-4 start.
Muschamp wants to make sure that doesn't happen again. He's off to a good start with a thrilling season-opening win over NC State. He gets another shot to start 2-0 Saturday night at Missouri (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2).
But his team must play well on the road after a neutral-site game in week one.
"We need to do a good job of preparing right for the game," Muschamp said. "We talked about last year winning on the road the first week and the second week, we didn’t play very well. That’s something I’ll talk to our team about."
Muschamp believes this year's team is more prepared to sustain the momentum for two reasons.
One, it has an experienced quarterback in Jake Bentley. Last year, red-shirt senior Perry Orth, who hadn't played much, and true freshman Brandon McIlwain split time in the first two games before McIlwain took over in Game 3 and Bentley replaced him in Game 7.
"I always felt that was an important factor in going on the road is having that position be a calming factor for your team. I certainly feel more comfortable there," Muschamp said.
Bentley, who started the final seven games of last season, threw for 215 yards and three touchdowns in week one, leading the Gamecocks to a 35-28 win.
After an impressive freshman season, Bentley is suddenly regarded as one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC. He showed it in week one, completing 17 of 29 passes, including two brilliant TD throws.
His rise is similar to that of another impressive SEC QB — Missouri's Drew Lock. The 6-4, 220-pound junior started the final eight games of his freshman season and then led the SEC in passing last year. He threw for 521 yards and seven touchdowns in Missouri's season-opening win over Missouri State.
"Both guys can make all the throws — the touch throw, the long throw. Obviously, directing their offense at a high level," Muschamp said. "A lot of similarities … in throwing the football and taking the ball to the right spot."
A key for Bentley will be getting the ball to explosive receiver Deebo Samuel, who had three touchdowns last week, including the opening 97-yard kickoff return. Samuel also caught two touchdown passes, so Missouri will do all it can to take the ball out of his hands.
Bentley and offensive coordinator Kurt Roper must make sure that doesn't happen. As Muschamp said, it's not about plays, it's about players.
"Get him the ball in multiple ways, and certainly the return game is a way to do that," Muschamp said. "I’m sure (Missouri head coach) Barry (Odom) and them will have a plan for him as far as the return game is concerned.
"He needs to come out of the game touching the ball, tired when the game is over."
The other player Bentley needs to find is Hayden Hurst. The big tight end caught just one pass for -2 yards last week. He was the initial target on Samuel's 39-yard touchdown, but Bentley missed him on a couple of other throws.
Hurst, who set schools records for receptions and yards by a tight end last year, also had to block on several plays, something he will continue to do.
"He needs to continue to block well, and that’s going to be every week in the run game. That’s part of his job as a tight end and what we do offensively," Muschamp said. "… We’ll have targets for Hayden every game."
The other reason Muschamp believes his team is better prepared to go on the road is an experienced defense. Travaris Robinson's group has eight seniors and they played well in the second half last week against NC State. Seniors Skai Moore, Chris Lammons, Taylor Stallworth, D.J. Smith, JaMarcus King and Dante Sawyer were six of the team's top-eight tacklers.
Muschamp is leaning on them to produce another strong defensive effort.
"I do feel like defensively that we have some experienced guys who have been on the road, understand the importance that this is an SEC East game and the first step to Atlanta (for the SEC Championship)," Muschamp said.