Offensive line woes leave South Carolina trying to play eight-man football in SEC

It was one of those moments that left you appreciative of just how breathtaking Jake Bentley can be. With the pocket collapsing around him, the sophomore quarterback side-stepped one potential tackler, then another — and fired an absolute beauty of a dart to Shi Smith for a 45-yard touchdown.

It was magic. And it completely obscured the fact that left tackle Dennis Daley was totally overwhelmed on the play, forcing the quarterback to improvise.

The ingredients for a South Carolina upset were in place Saturday night at Texas A&M, where the Gamecocks owned a 10-point lead in the second half. That it turned into a 24-17 defeat goes back to the crucial injuries South Carolina carried into the game — not to receiver Deebo Samuel and linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams, but to offensive linemen Zack Bailey and Cory Helms, which left an already-shaky O-line a shell of its former self.

That much was evident even when the Gamecocks were in the lead, and trying to give the Kyle Field crowd every reason to turn on embattled coach Kevin Sumlin (who, now at 4-1 and 3-0 in the SEC, may not be quite as embattled anymore). Bentley’s protection was precarious all game; one play before his magical TD strike to Smith, he had been taken down when a running back missed a blitz pickup. Later, the Gamecocks had to settle for a Parker White field goal after center Alan Knott was beaten and the rush forced Bentley to throw the ball away.

And that was when things were going well. In the fourth quarter, with Texas A&M having tied the ball game and the Aggies defense knowing the Gamecocks were relying solely on the pass, it all came undone; first, Bentley was taken down by a four-man front, then again two plays later when Ty’Son Williams whiffed on picking up blitzing linebacker Otaro Alaka. The dam burst on South Carolina’s next series, after the Aggies had taken the lead, and Texas A&M’s defense overwhelmed the Gamecocks’ offensive line for two more consecutive sacks of the quarterback.

Given all that, it was a wonder that South Carolina was even in position to attempt a game-tying drive on its final possession of the game. The Aggies finished with 7 sacks, more than half the 13 they had accumulated in their first four games, and their most in a single contest this season. South Carolina was so limited in pass protection, and Bentley was so often scrambling behind that folding card table of a line set up in front of him, that at times it looked like the Gamecocks were fielding an eight-man football team.

That may work in small high school leagues in eastern Montana, but not in the SEC, where everything is won and lost at the line of scrimmage. For the Gamecocks on Saturday night, the deficiencies up front were evident everywhere; South Carolina rushed for 23 yards and managed 7 total in a fourth quarter it opened with a 17-10 lead. Gamecocks fans on social media were upset about play-calling early in a second half when South Carolina tried to establish the run, but how likely was that lead to hold up with Bentley running for his life and flinging it on every play?

Clearly, something has to change. Getting the starters healthy would certainly help, but Bailey is saddled with the kind of high-ankle sprain that can take weeks to heal. Who knows the severity of the ankle injury that sidelined Helms on Saturday night. On top of it all, starting right tackle Malik Young — moved to that spot from the left side to try and offset the loss of Bailey — left the Texas A&M game with an ankle injury of his own, coach Will Muschamp told reporters afterward.

So this promises to be a patchwork effort for a while. With the offensive line compromised from a personnel standpoint, the Gamecocks may well employ more two-tight end formations, with Jacob August and Hayden Hurst stationed as extra blockers up front. Hurst has been used a lot this season in pass protection, and it’s cutting into his reception numbers, but right now, the Gamecocks don’t really have another choice. And the running backs, Bentley’s last line of defense, simply can’t miss blitz pickups at the rate they did Saturday night.

The good news is that Muschamp continues to work miracles with a defense that was supposed to be South Carolina’s weak link but has given the Gamecocks a chance in the last two games they’ve lost. Yet, Arkansas next Saturday looms as almost a must-win for a football team that now stands 3-2 overall and 1-2 in the league. That offensive line, patched up and taking on water, remains the key. And the Gamecocks can’t keep trying to play eight-man football in the SEC, as they did Saturday night.

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