By Jeff Owens/Photo by Allen Sharpe
Malik Young and his teammates on the offensive line heard the whispers and criticism during the offseason.
"Yeah, they said we all suck," Young said.
Young and his teammates took such criticism to heart. They didn't like it and set about doing something about it, making sure they were up to the task of protecting quarterback Jake Bentley and blocking for their playmakers.
"That just gave us, it gave us a chip on our shoulder and made us work harder and know that every game we have to put it on the line, put everything on the line," Young said after South Carolina's 35-28 win over NC State.
After an offseason of intense workouts with strength and conditioning coach Jeff Dillman and renewed focus under offensive line coach Eric Wolford, the Gamecock offensive line proved itself in the season-opening game.
Though the Gamecocks managed just 246 yards of total offense, including only 31 yards rushing, the offensive line gave Bentley enough time to work his magic. He threw three touchdown passes and was sacked just twice in the 35-28 victory.
Against one of the best defensive lines in the country, the Gamecock offensive line proved itself.
"After tonight, we know we don't suck at all," Young said. "But we got to keep working. We got to keep working to get better and get better throughout the season because we will face a bigger test than this."
The offensive line will play a key role again tonight as South Carolina travels to Missouri. Facing another high-powered offense, Bentley and his offensive line will be challenged to have another productive game of their own.
NC State got to Bentley just twice, both on blitzes. Bentley completed 17 of 29 passes for 215 yards, connecting with six different receivers. Though the Gamecocks won with big plays — a 97-yard kickoff return and passing touchdowns of 34 and 39 yards — Bentley orchestrated one 11-play, 80-yard drive thanks to solid play from his offensive line. The line also opened a big hole on Rico Dowdle's 7-yard touchdown run in the third quarter that proved to be the decisive score.
"Unbelievable job, unbelievable job in pass protection," Bentley said. "They knew we were going to throw it the whole game. It was a big task for 'em. Two of the sacks, they brought more than we could pick up, not their fault. We got to do things in our concepts to get the ball out faster. … Other than that, they did an unbelievable job protecting me against a really good D-Line."
Young was under particular pressure entering the season after moving from right tackle to left tackle.
He beat out newcomer Dennis Daley for the starting job, joining guards Donell Stanley and Cory Helms, center Alan Knott and right tackle Zack Bailey.
Young said the competition from Daley, a junior-college All-American, was good for both players.
"It made us both better at the end of the day," Young said. "There were some things I needed to get better at and he needed to get better at, though he just got here. We both made each other better and we got close because we were helping each other with certain things. It brought us together and made us better at the end of the day."
Young, a junior from Pelzer, S.C., admitted before the game that he and his teammates felt a bit of pressure entering the game but were looking forward to the challenge.
"Of course there is a little pressure from people outside uncertain about how we are going to be," he said. "But we just have to go out there and play the way we know how to play. Play hard, play fast and play with discipline and we will be alright.
"I take every challenge as an opportunity. That is an opportunity for me to prove myself."
Young and the offensive line proved themselves against a highly regarded defensive line. They contained All-American Bradley Chubb, who had just five tackles and only one solo stop. He was credited with two tackles for loss, but NC State had just seven stops behind the line of scrimmage while South Carolina had 11, including four sacks.
"We neutralized a lot of things," head coach Will Muschamp said. "Rope (offensive coordinator Kurt Roper) and Wolf (Wolford) did a really good job of changing protections. They couldn't get a bead on always knowing where they could attack in protection … We've got to continue to mix that up."
The offensive line knew they were facing a major challenge against NC State, but Young said they had been preparing for months.
"Coach Wolf got us real prepared," he said. "We went over things so many times there wasn't no way we didn't know everything they were doing."
“They were good," Bailey said. "I mean, I’m not going to downplay it, they were good. They’ve got a good team and a good D-line. … We just trained over the summer to try to be the best team we can. That was it.”
"I give the utmost respect to them," Young said. "They are well coached, but at the end of the day, I honestly feel like we will play better D-Lines in SEC than we saw (against NC State). It just goes back to technique and everything coach Wolf has taught us. I messed up and gave up a few pressures I wish I could have back, but that's on me not using my technique. Everything coach Wolf taught me worked."
Young said the performance gave the offensive line confidence heading to Missouri and into a tough SEC schedule.
"It definitely gives us a sense of confidence because we know who we played against," he said. "We know how good we can do. This is a measuring stick of how well we can play."
"It feels great," Bailey said. "It comes from all the offseason work we did and all the guys staying (during the summer). That’s really what it came down to, just the effort we put in and the discipline."