By Jeff Owens/Photo by Allen Sharpe
CHARLOTTE — Jake Bentley threw three touchdown passes, Deebo Samuel scored three times and the Gamecock defense came up huge in the second half to lead South Carolina to a 35-28 win over NC State in the season-opener for both teams.
Safety D.J. Smith batted down a pass in the end zone on fourth down with 15 seconds remaining to preserve the win.
Here's some takeaways from Saturday's game:
• The biggest concern entering the season was the defense, which gave up 411 yards per game last year. It was still a concern after NC State marched up and down the field in the first half.
Wolfpack quarterback Ryan Finley picked the Gamecock defense apart early, throwing for 296 yards as NC State rolled up 343 yards of total offense in the first half.
But the Gamecocks made some big adjustments at halftime and came up big in the second half.
South Carolina stopped NC State for the first time on the Wolfpack's first possession of the second half on a sack by Keir Thomas.
On NC State's second possession, Dante Sawyer had another sack and forced his second fumble of the game. Bryson Allen-Willilams pounced on it to set up South Carolina at the Wolfpack 13. Two plays later, Rico Dowdle rushed into the end zone to put the Gamecocks up 35-21.
South Carolina stopped NC State on its next two possessions, collecting another sack by D.J. Wonnum.
After NC State cut the lead to 35-28, the defense came up with another big stop. After a penalty backed the Pack up into a third-and-18 situation, T.J. Brunson and Taylor Stallworth came up with a tackle for a three-yard loss to stop the drive and force State to punt.
The defense stopped NC State again with 4:34 left in the game when it tackled receiver Jaylen Samuel just short of a first down on fourth-and-5 to take over possession.
Then, on the biggest play of the game, safety D.J. Smith batted away a pass in the end zone on fourth down to seal the victory.
"We got our four-man pass rush a little better (in the second half)," head coach Will Muschamp. "We ended with four sacks, which was good."
• Deebo Samuel is just as electric and versatile as advertised. A year ago, Samuel had nine TDs — six rushing, one receiving and two on returns. On Saturday, he had three — two receiving and one on a kickoff return.
Samuel showed his remarkable talent on the first play of the game, taking the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown. Samuels darted up the middle, cut to his left, bounced outside and outrun the Wolfpack defense for the third return touchdown of his career.
"That probably gave us the momentum to win the game," Gamecock tackle Malik Young said.
Samuel then caught Bentley's first pass of the game, a seven-yard gain to start South Carolina's 80-yard TD drive. He capped the third scoring drive with a seven-yard TD catch on a slant over the middle.
Early in the third quarter, he got behind the Pack secondary and made a spectacular grab on a pass by the scrambling Bentley to put SC up 28-21.
"That was a phenomenal play," NC State head coach Dave Doeren said. "We knew he was a very good football player."
Samuel finished the game with five catches for 83 yards and two touchdowns. He had 185 all-purpose yards.
• Though the defense stepped up and made some big plays in the second half, head coach Will Muschamp has to be concerned about the secondary, which couldn't cover the NC State receivers and gave up more than 400 yards passing to Pack QB Ryan Finley.
• Who knew Jake Bentley was the next Johnny Manziel? We knew Bentley had a strong arm, but he made three outstanding plays with his legs Saturday. He scrambled for two first downs on scoring drives in the first half, and then avoided defenders again in the third-quarter on the 39-yard TD toss to Samuel.
Bentley scrambled to his right, tucked the ball and started to run, and then saw Samuel streaking past an NC State defender. He made a great throw and Samuel made a great catch, but it Bentley's elusiveness that set up the play.
• Rico Dowdle is definitely South Carolina's No. 1 running back. Dowdle started the game, got the bulk of the carries and made them count.
Dowdle bobbled a pass from Bentley in the flat in the first quarter, hauled it in and scampered for a 34-yard touchdown.
In the third quarter, after the Gamecocks came up with a turnover at the NC State 13, Dowdle burst through a hole, broke a tackle and scored from seven yards out to put SC up 35-21. He finished the game with just 33 yards rushing but had two catches for 51 yards.
• The Gamecocks were worried prior to the season about the pass rush. They may have found some answers. They had four sacks and 11 tackles for loss. Wonnum had a huge game with a sack and three tackles for loss. Sawyer, Thomas and Allen-Williams also had sacks and Sawyer forced two fumbles.
The Gamecocks worked hard on turnovers during training camp and stripped the ball twice.
"You see our guys going after the ball and our defensive staff and our defensive players do a fantastic job of really attacking the football," Muschamp said.