By Jeff Owens/Photo by Jenny Dilworth
CHARLOTTE — Jake Bentley and the South Carolina offense had done all it could to run away from NC State in the first half, tossing two TD passes and putting up 21 points.
But the Gamecock defense could not stop the Wolfpack, surrendering 343 yards and giving up three touchdowns.
With the scored tied at 21, Bentley had to make a play. And he knew just who to go to.
Early in the third quarter, Bentley scrambled to his left, evaded a Wolfpack defender and spotted Deebo Samuel sprinting behind the NC State defense. Bentley shook off a pass rusher and launched a pass toward Samuel, who made a diving catch in the end zone to give the Gamecocks a 28-21 lead.
The South Carolina defense, which got torched in the first half, then came up big. Dante Sawyer sacked NC State quarterback Ryan Finley and forced his second fumble of the game. Bryson Allen-Williams pounced on it and the Gamecocks had the ball at the Wolfpack 13.
Two plays later, Rico Dowdle dashed into the end zone for another touchdown to put South Carolina up 35-21.
NC State closed to within seven with a fourth-quarter score, but the Gamecock defense came up with big play after big play to hold on. When safety D.J. Smith batted down a pass in the end zone with 15 seconds left, the Gamecocks walked away with a hard-fought 35-28 win.
"Just really proud of how hard our guys fought," head coach Will Muschamp said.
The Gamecocks won their season-opener despite giving up 504 yards of total offense, including 415 passing. But the defense came up with four sacks in the second half and two big turnovers that led to 14 points.
South Carolina managed just 246 yards of total offense, 157 in the first half. But Bentley threw three touchdown passes and Samuel scored three, including a 97-yard kickoff return on the first play of the game.
Samuel also caught two touchdown passes, while Dowdle caught one and rushed for one.
Linebacker T.J. Brunson led the Gamecock defense with 16 tackles, while defensive end D.J. Wonnum had eight stops, including three tackles for loss. Sawyer had seven tackles, a sack and two forced fumbles.
Bentley said the defensive performance in the second half was the key to the game.
"I felt like we kinda picked up the defense in the first half and they really rallied behind us throughout the second half," he said. "That's why we're a team. That's why we train together and do everything together because we fight for one another."
After Samuel took the opening kickoff 97 yards for a 7-0 lead, NC State came right back to tie it on a 6-yard run by Finley.
Bentley then found Dowdle on a screen pass for a 34-yard touchdown and a 14-7 lead. The Pack came right back again, however, to tie it on a 2-yard run by Nyheim Hines.
Bentley then led South Carolina on another long drive, capped by a 6-yard strike to Samuel. But Finley marched the Pack down the field again and tied it with a 4-yard pass to Jakobi Meyers.
With the scored tied at 21 in the third, Bentley found Samuel again on one of the biggest plays of the game.
"We were just faking a run to the left," Bentley said. "I faked it and came around and it was actually supposed to go to TE Hayden (Hurst) and I got my head around and saw (the defender) in my face so I gave him a stiff-arm, and I was about to run and I saw Deebo just running across the field and I just gave him a chance and he made an unbelievable play. It's great to have guys like him out there."
"We work on the scramble drill every other day at practice," Samuel said. "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."
Samuel, who already had two touchdowns at that point, made a leaping grab in the end zone.
"If he had dropped that pass in the end zone I might have killed him, but it was an unbelievable catch and an unbelievable play he made," Bentley said.
"That was a phenomenal play," NC State head coach Dave Doeren said. "We knew he was a very good football player."
NC State scored with 12:21 left in the game to cut the lead to 35-21 but the Gamecocks stopped the Pack on their last three possessions. They stopped Jaylen Samuels just short of a first down on fourth down with about three minutes left in the game.
NC State got the ball back with 3:06 remaining and drove all the way to the South Carolina 8-yard line. But Allen-Williams had a sack and the Gamecock defense forced two incompletions. Then, on fourth down, Smith broke up the pass in the end zone to save the game.
"I wish I could have picked it, but at least I got the ball down," Smith said.
He said the defense regrouped at halftime and knew it had to step up in the second half.
"We wanted to win," he said. "I feel like we came out a little slow. We gave up like 21 points in the first three drives and went in the locker room and we all came together and we thought about how hard we worked this summer and how and we are a family and we want to win the game."
"They really had our backs and forced some turnovers that were big for us and had some big stops," Bentley said. "That's a team picking each other up."
"At the end of the day, I think we wanted it more than them," Smith said.
The Gamecocks, 1-0, travel to Missouri next Saturday.