COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina has finally won consecutive games this year, something the Gamecocks believe has given them a jolt of confidence that will help them the rest of the season.
“It’s all a confidence thing,” quarterback Jake Bentley said. “Confidence in the game plan, confidence in what we’re starting off with. You can definitely see that.”
South Carolina (5-3, 4-3 Southeastern Conference) hopes to have a similarly strong performance against No. 19 Florida (6-3, 4-3).
Something had been missing the first half of the season for South Carolina as it literally went back-and-forth between winning and losing.
But since a midseason break last month, the Gamecocks have found ways to pull out games.
They were down 21-9 in the third quarter against Tennessee before rallying for a 27-24 victory. A week later, South Carolina trailed Ole Miss 44-34 early in the fourth quarter before scoring a pair of rushing touchdowns, the last on Bentley’s 4-yard run, for a 48-44 victory.
South Carolina entered the season looking to compete in the SEC Eastern Division after winning nine games a year ago. But losses to three ranked programs in Georgia, Kentucky and Texas A&M knocked the Gamecocks out of contention and struggling to find a winning formula.
Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp has been around his share of programs where when things went wrong, the effort waned, concentration lagged and players started thinking about next year.
That was never the case at South Carolina, he said.
Muschamp said the team’s older leaders have led the way the past few weeks, forgetting the problems of the past and getting younger teammates to focus on what’s next.
“We talk in terms of winning downs and that wins possessions and that wins games, so regardless of the circumstance or situation, we just keep playing,” he said.
The Gamecocks recent success coincided with a more effective run game. South Carolina has 100-yard rushers in Rico Dowdle (140 yards against Tennessee) and Mond Denson (102 yards against Mississippi) in consecutive games for the first time all season.
“We’re still not where we want to be,” said right guard Sadarius Hutcherson, a sophomore. “We’ve still got flaws we need to work on. But I’m very proud of how far we’ve come.”
Hutcherson said there was no panic or finger pointing during the team’s bye week, which followed a disappointing loss to Texas A&M where the Gamecocks fell behind 16-0 and fell 26-23 despite a second-half rally.
“We didn’t need to do any of that,” Hutcherson said. “Just go back to work.”
Bentley’s play has picked up, too, the past few weeks. He was bothered by a knee injury sustained at Kentucky in September and missed a win over Missouri a week later.
His first halves against the Aggies and Vols were awful: Bentley combined to go 9 for 25 passing for 67 yards, two interceptions and zero TDs.
Like the Gamecocks, Bentley rallied in the second half each time, completing 19 of 26 passes for 308 yards, four touchdowns and no picks.
Bentley had a more complete showing at Ole Miss, finishing with 323 yards and two TDs passing, including a highlight reel reception by Bryan Edwards on a 75-yard score. Bentley says part of that is his knee feeling better and part is the team’s resolve not to throw away the season because some things went wrong early.
“You can’t ever let yourself get down,” Bentley said. “No one on this team is going to let that happen.”
Muschamp believes that, too. The coach said he sells his players on shaking off adversity on the field and rely on their training at practice to turn things around.
“That’s not just something we talk about one week or one game,” Muschamp said. “It’s every single day over a period of time, then it becomes your culture.”
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