Dec. 28, 2016
After a one-year hiatus, the South Carolina Gamecocks (6-6, 3-5 SEC) are back in postseason action. The Gamecocks will square off against the No. 25/22 South Florida Bulls (10-2, 7-1 AAC) in the Birmingham Bowl on Thursday, December 29, at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala. Game time is set for 2 pm ET (1 pm local). ESPN will televise the game nationally, with Eamon McAnaney and John Congemi in the booth and Kevin Weidl on the sidelines. ESPN Radio has the national radio call with Doug Bell and Chris Doering in the booth and Kris Budden on the sidelines.
FOR THE HISTORY BUFFS
2016 marks the 123rd season of intercollegiate football at the University of South Carolina, dating back to 1892. It is the 110th-consecutive year in which South Carolina has competed on the gridiron. Carolina is 24 games over the .500 mark with an all-time record of 592-568-44. The Gamecocks have played 200 regular season SEC games in 25 seasons. The Gamecocks are 86-113-1 (.433) all-time in SEC regular-season play.
SWEET HOME ALABAMA
The Gamecocks have eight players from the state of Alabama. They include Griffin Gentry (Birmingham), Jonathan Walton (Daphne), Jalen Dread (Foley), Jamarcus King (Mobile), Taylor Stallworth (Mobile), Jake Bentley (Opelika), Boosie Whitlow (Opelika) and Ulric Jones (Oxford).
The 2016 Birmingham Bowl marks Carolina's 21st bowl appearance. The Gamecocks are 8-12 all-time in bowl games. They dropped their first eight bowl games, won three straight, lost four of the next five but now have won each of their last four bowl appearances.
ONE FOR THE THUMB
Carolina has won each of its last four bowl games. Only Marshall, with five-straight bowl wins, has a longer current bowl winning streak than do the Gamecocks. Here are the longest current bowl winning streaks:
Here's a look at the Gamecocks' 20 previous bowl appearances:
The Gamecocks are bowl-eligible for the 12th time in the last 13 years. They elected not to participate in a bowl game following a 6-5 season in 2004, did not receive a bowl bid following a 6-6 campaign in 2007, and did not qualify for a bowl following a 3-9 season in 2015. The Gamecocks are 5-4 in the nine bowl games played in that stretch, including wins in each of their last four bowl appearances.
THIRD TIME'S A CHARM
This will be South Carolina's third bowl trip to Birmingham. The Gamecocks dropped a 24-14 decision to Missouri on December 28, 1979 in the Hall of Fame Bowl, then suffered a 20-7 setback to Connecticut on January 2, 2010, in what was then known as the Papajohns.com Bowl.
GAMECOCKS AND BULLS
This will mark just the second meeting between South Carolina and USF. The Gamecocks posted a 34-3 win in Columbia on September 18, 2004, in their only previous encounter with the Bulls. Syvelle Newton, making his first career start at quarterback, completed 13-of-23 passes for 324 yards and three TDs in the win. The 324 passing yards were the most ever by a Carolina quarterback making his first start. Troy Williamson logged a single-game school record with 210 yards receiving and accounted for three touchdowns, as Carolina racked up 530 yards of offense in the game. The two head coaches that day were Lou Holtz and Jim Leavitt.
WALK THIS WAY
The following regular contributors began their Carolina careers as walk-ons: Jacob August, Matrick Belton, Javon Charleston, Elliott Fry, Hayden Hurst, Sean Kelly, Steven Montac, Perry Orth, Darius Paulk, Rod Talley and Drew Williams.
WE ARE YOUNG
Seventy-six of the Gamecocks' 113-man Birmingham bowl roster, or 67.3 percent, are either freshmen (52) or sophomores (24), compared to just 18 juniors and 19 seniors. Thirteen true freshmen have seen game action this season. Twenty-one players took part in the Senior Day ceremonies in Columbia.
WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE
Carolina has 19 players who have made their first collegiate start in 2016. Of the 19 first-time starters, seven are true freshmen: Jake Bentley, Randrecous Davis, Chavis Dawkins, Rico Dowdle, Bryan Edwards, Brandon McIlwain, and Keir Thomas, matching Maryland, Ole Miss and Texas for the most true freshmen starters in the country.
PUT ME IN COACH
The Gamecocks have had eight players start every game this season, four on offense - Zack Bailey, Cory Helms, Hayden Hurst, and Mason Zandi; and four on defense - Darius English, Chris Lammons, Marquavius Lewis and Taylor Stallworth.
A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN
South Carolina owns a 32-17 record against teams that currently make up the American Athletic Conference, including a 1-0 mark this season following a 20-15 win over East Carolina. The Gamecocks have won each of their last seven games (East Carolina four times, UCF twice and Navy once) against teams from the AAC since dropping the 2010 Papajohns.com Bowl in Birmingham to UConn
THEY'RE NOT SEC WORTHY
South Carolina is 24-4 in its last 28 non-conference games, including a 3-1 mark this season. Carolina had its 18-game non-conference winning streak snapped in the 2014 regular season finale at Clemson, then lost two games during the 2015 season to non-conference foes The Citadel and Clemson. They also dropped the 2016 regular season finale at Clemson. Prior to the Clemson loss in 2014, Carolina's last non-conference loss came to Florida State in the 2010 Chick-fil-A Bowl.
The Gamecocks are looking for their seventh win of the season after logging just three wins a year ago. They have had eight seasons in which they have increased their win total by four-or-more games in school history, including a record eight-game improvement from 1999 to 2000.
Here's a quick look at some 2016 season statistical highlights:
HEY TURN ME OVER
The Gamecocks have forced 25 turnovers on the season. The Gamecocks are tied for first in the SEC and tied for 10th in the country in turnovers forced, and first in the SEC and tied for ninth in the country in turnover margin at plus-0.83.
RED ZONE DEFENSE
The Gamecocks rank third in the SEC and 11th in the nation in red zone defense, allowing points just 73.5 percent of the time. In 49 chances, the Carolina defense has allowed just 28 TDs and eight field goals, while forcing a league-high six turnovers in the red zone.
RETURN THAT KICK
The Gamecocks lead the SEC and are seventh in the nation in kickoff returns, averaging 26.0 per return this season. The Gamecocks boast three different returners who have posted a 50-yard return this season - Deebo Samuel (100), A.J. Turner (80) and Rashad Fenton (50).
NINE WINS BY FIVE DIFFERENT QB'S
The Gamecocks have won nine games over the past two seasons, with five different starting quarterbacks accounting for the wins. Jake Bentley leads the way with five wins, while Perry Orth has won twice. Connor Mitch, Lorenzo Nuñez and Brandon McIlwain each have one win.
The Gamecocks have used three starting quarterbacks for the second-straight year. Senior Perry Orth entered the season as the only experienced signal-caller and earned the starting position coming out of fall camp. He is 1-2 as a starter this season and 2-9 in his 11 career starts. True freshman Brandon McIlwain enrolled in January and went through spring drills. He has appeared in eight games, logging a 1-2 mark as a starter. True freshman Jake Bentley, who arrived in the summer, had his redshirt taken off during the midseason bye week. He owns a 4-2 record as a starter.
YOU CAN'T PICK THIS
Only Western Michigan (3), Georgia Tech (4), North Carolina (4), and Oklahoma State (4) have thrown fewer interceptions than the Gamecocks (5) during the 2016 season.
TURNING THE KEYS OVER TO BENTLEY
True freshman Jake Bentley is 4-2 in six starts, with his two setbacks coming on the road against ranked foes, Florida and Clemson. He made his debut in week 7 and earned the win over UMass, completing 17-of-26 passes for 201 yards with two touchdowns. He became the third true freshman quarterback to start for the Gamecocks in the past two seasons, joining Lorenzo Nuñez and Brandon McIlwain. He earned his second win against Tennessee after completing 15-of-20 passes for 167 yards and two scores. He ran his record to 3-0 with a win over Missouri when he set career highs by completing 22 passes (in 28 attempts) for 254 yards with two scores. For the season, he is completing 63.3 percent of his passes (93-of-147) for 1,030 yards with six TDs and two picks.
FEELS LIKE THE FIRST TIME
When he got the call against UMass in week 7, Jake Bentley became just the fifth true freshman to start at quarterback for the Gamecocks since joining the SEC. Steve Taneyhill (1992), Mikal Goodman (1999), Lorenzo Nuñez (2015) and Brandon McIlwain (2016) were the others.
True freshman Jake Bentley passed on his senior year of high school to enroll at South Carolina in the summer. He joins Kansas safety Mike Lee as the only two FBS players in the country who could still be playing prep football this fall. However, Bentley is actually about six months older than fellow true freshman quarterback Brandon McIlwain. Bentley will turn 19 on November 23, while McIlwain will not turn 19 until May 31.
Jake Bentley comes from a football family. His father, Bobby, is the Gamecocks' running backs coach and previously was a highly-successful high school coach at Byrnes (S.C.) High and at Presbyterian College. Jake's brothers, Chas Dodd (Rutgers) and Schuler Bentley (Old Dominion), both have started at quarterback in college.
Jake Bentley became the first true freshman quarterback to win his first three collegiate starts at South Carolina since Steve Taneyhill began his career with four-straight wins in 1992. Taneyhill who, like Bentley, made his first start midway through the season, finished his freshman season with a 5-1 mark. In 2007, Chris Smelley won his first four starts as a redshirt freshman.
YOUTH WILL BE SERVED
South Carolina is the only FBS team to have freshmen lead the squad in both rushing yards and passing yards.
MISSING THE SENIOR CITIZENS
The Gamecocks list just four seniors on the offensive side of the ball in Matrick Belton, Perry Orth, Darius Paulk and Mason Zandi. All four are redshirt seniors. Zandi is the only one of the four to begin his collegiate career at South Carolina and the only one who came to Columbia as a scholarship player. Only Minnesota (3), Old Dominion (4), Florida (4) and Troy (4) have as few seniors on offense as do the Gamecocks. Zandi is also the only offensive starter not slated to return in 2017.
The Gamecocks have three running backs in the rotation. Redshirt freshman A.J. Turner took the bulk of the carries early in the season, but true freshman Rico Dowdle has taken the majority of the carries of late after missing the first four games with a sports hernia. Junior David Williams (187 career carries) has the most career carries and rushing yards. Dowdle has three career 100-yard games, including a career-high 226 yards against Western Carolina, while Turner and Williams have one each. 1,290 of the Gamecocks' 1,656 rushing yards have been by freshmen (77.8 pct.).
HE'S NOT YOUR UNCLE RICO
After undergoing surgery for a sports hernia in the offseason which caused him to miss the season's first four games, true freshman Rico Dowdle has impressed. In eight contests, the 5-11, 211-pounder has carried the ball 121 times for 714 yards, a 5.9-yard average, with six touchdowns and three 100-yard games. He has averaged 89.2 yards per game on the ground, which would be second among freshmen in the SEC if he had played in enough games to qualify. He had back-to-back games of 27 carries for over 100 yards - 127 yards versus Tennessee and 149 yards against Missouri, then rolled up a career-best 226 yards against Western Carolina. He leads the team with seven touchdowns, including six on the ground.
WHAT A DAY
Rico Dowdle had a day for the record books against Western Carolina. The true freshman carried 21 times for 226 yards and two scores in the contest, averaging 10.8 yards per carry. Dowdle's 226 yards rushing was the sixth-highest single-game total in school history, the 11th 200-yard rushing game by a Carolina back and the most yards rushing since Marcus Lattimore logged 246 against Navy in 2011. Here are the top rushing games in school history:
Redshirt freshman A.J. Turner earned the starting nod at running back during fall camp. The 5-10, 195-pounder had his best game against Texas A&M, rushing 10 times for 113 yards, including a 75-yard TD run on the first play from scrimmage. He is the Gamecocks' second-leading rusher with 106 carries for 448 yards and two touchdowns, and has added 18 catches for 120 yards and a score. Turner has also averaged 24.7 yards on 13 kickoff return. He ranks fourth among freshmen in the SEC in all-purpose yardage with 80.8 yards per game.
CATCH ME IF YOU CAN
Carolina's wide receivers had limited experience entering the season, combining for just 28 catches and 356 yards, and were plagued by injuries early in 2016. However, once Deebo Samuel and Bryan Edwards got healthy, the passing game improved significantly. The top six pass receivers are all either freshmen or sophomores. 198 of the Gamecocks' 216 pass receptions have been by freshmen or sophomores (91.7 pct.), Terry Googer (7 catches) is the only upperclassman among the wide receivers with a catch this season.
SAMUEL IS KING
Deebo Samuel has gotten healthy, and so has the Gamecock offense. After a hamstring injury limited him to just four pass receptions for 66 yards in the season's first five games, Samuel has hauled in 41 passes for 527 yards in the last seven contests. He has logged at least eight catches three times with two 100-yard receiving games. He had the best game of his career when he caught nine passes for 125 yards against Missouri. Samuel ranks eighth in the SEC with 5.0 receptions per game and with 65.9 receiving yards per game. In addition, he ranks fourth in kickoff returns at 27.8 yards per return. Samuel has also rushed 14 times, with five going for scores and tossed a 33-yard touchdown pass at Clemson. He is second on the team with six touchdowns, but has no receiving TDs.
SAMUEL TO THE HOUSE
Deebo Samuel showed his versatile play-making skills against Western Carolina. The Gamecock sophomore wide receiver carried the pigskin five times for 27 yards and two touchdowns, caught four passes for 56 yards and returned five kickoffs for 194 yards, including a 100-yarder for a score.
Bryan Edwards became the sixth true freshman to start in the season opener for the Garnet & Black since the start of the 2009 season. He joined Stephon Gilmore (2009), Marcus Lattimore (2010), Jadeveon Clowney (2011), Bryson Allen-Williams (2014) and Al Harris Jr. (2014).
AND NOW WE KNOW WHY
True freshman Bryan Edwards showed why he earned the starting nod in his first collegiate game. The 6-3, 210-pounder, hauled in eight passes for 101 yards in the win over Vanderbilt. He was the only freshman receiver in the country to log a 100-yard game in the season's first week. It was just the eighth 100-yard receiving game in a season opener in Gamecock history and he is the only true freshman on the list. He ranks eighth in the nation among freshmen in receiving yards per game (47.2).
AMONG THE GREATS
Here's how Bryan Edwards stacks up against other recent great Carolina receivers in their true freshman campaigns:
DIAMONDS AREN'T FOREVER
Tight end Hayden Hurst, a 6-5, 250-pound former professional baseball player, has been a consistent go-to guy this season. The 23-year-old sophomore is second on the team with 42 catches for 530 yards, with at least five receptions in four games and at least 80 yards in three contests. His best marks are an eight-catch performance at Mississippi State and a 90-yard effort against Texas A&M. Hurst also served as the Gamecocks' punt returner against Georgia, becoming the biggest punt returner in Division I football in recent memory.
HISTORY IN THE MAKING
Hayden Hurst owns 42 catches, breaking the school record for receptions by a tight end. The previous mark of 38 was set by Doug Hamrick in 1970. With 530 receiving yards, Hurst is closing in on Danny Smith's record for receiving yards by a tight end. Smith logged 576 receiving yards in 1987. Hurst is trying to become the first non-wide receiver to lead the Gamecocks in receptions since Ryan Brewer in 2002, and could become the first tight end to lead the team in receptions since Chris Corley in 1982..
THE QB'S ARE TIGHT WITH THEM
The tight end duo of Hayden Hurst and K.C. Crosby has become a big part of the offense. In addition to Hurst's 42 catches for 530 yards, Crosby is fourth on the team with 22 receptions for 210 yards and leads the team with four touchdown receptions. Jacob August has added five catches for 52 yards.
ZANDI STANDS ALONE
Redshirt senior Mason Zandi is the only senior on the offensive side of the ball on the 2016 roster that came to South Carolina as a scholarship player. Zandi, a 6-9, 315-pound local product from Chapin, S.C. was named preseason third-team All-SEC by the league's coaches. He is also just one of six players in Gamecock history with the last name starting with "Z" to earn a football letter. The most recent prior to Zandi was Zip Zanders, who lettered in 1986. Mason's father, Ali, is a native of Iran who fled his home country during its 1970s revolution.
STABILITY UP FRONT
IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE
Zack Bailey was the only Gamecock named to the 2015 SEC All-Freshman team, as selected by the league's 14 coaches. The 6-6, 315-pound true freshman from Summerville, S.C., played in all 12 games in 2015, making five starts, with three at center and two at left guard. He has started each game this season at left guard and consistently grades out as the offensive line's top performer.
KNOTT YOUR STARTING CENTER
Junior Alan Knott, a preseason Rimington Award candidate, has made 28 career starts, most on the squad.
JUST GET ME THE BALL
The Gamecocks have forced 25 turnovers this season, recovering 11 fumbles with 14 pass interceptions. The Gamecocks are plus-10 in turnovers in their six wins (15-5) and are even in the six losses (10-10).
TAKING ENGLISH LESSONS
Darius English leads the Gamecocks with 9.0 sacks, including a career-best 3.0 sacks against Kentucky. That was the most sacks by a Gamecock player since Jadeveon Clowney had 4.5 at Clemson in 2012. English is tied for third in the SEC in sacks and has moved into the school's top-10 list in both single-season and career sacks.
GETTING IN THE SACK
The Gamecocks have 21 sacks, producing a season-high four sacks against both East Carolina and Kentucky.
EVERY GAME QUA
Defensive lineman Marquavius Lewis has started all 24 games since his arrival in Columbia. He owns the longest current consecutive streak of starts on the squad.
Carolina has picked off 14 passes, second in the SEC behind Georgia. Chris Lammons, Jamarcus King and T.J. Holloman have three each. King had two picks vs. Tennessee, earning Defensive Player of the Week accolades.
TRIO OF VETERAN LINEBACKERS
Seniors T.J. Holloman and Jonathan Walton, along with junior Bryson Allen-Williams share the linebacking duties. The trio ranks among the team's top four tacklers this season with Allen-Williams leading the way with 73 stops, followed closely by Holloman (64) and Walton (64).
THE SKAI TURNED RED(SHIRT)
Skai Moore will take a redshirt and miss the 2016 season following offseason surgery to address a herniated disk in his neck. The 6-2, 220-pounder from Cooper City, Fla., was the Gamecocks' leading tackler in 2015 with 111 stops, tying for third in the SEC with 9.2 tackles per game. He also led the team with 6.5 tackles for loss and with four pass interceptions, tying for fourth in the SEC. Moore became the first Gamecock to reach the century mark in tackles since 2006, while his 111 tackles was the second-highest total recorded by a Carolina player in the last 25 years. He led the team in tackles for a third-consecutive season, becoming the first player to do so since 1992-94. In addition, Moore has 11 career picks, tying for third on the all-time list.
BREAKING UP IS HARD TO DO
Junior cornerback Jamarcus King ranks tied for fourth in the SEC in passes defended, averaging 1.0 breakups per game. His three interceptions ties him with Chris Lammons and T.J. Holloman for fifth in the SEC.
COMING ON FAST
Junior safety D.J. Smith had his best effort in the season finale at Clemson, accounting for a career-high 13 tackles, including 10 solo stops. The 13 tackles was the most recorded by a Gamecock this season and vaulted him to the top of the squad's leaders for tackles this season with 73.
Elliott Fry became the school's all-time leading scorer in the win over Missouri, and now has tallied 352 points. The previous mark of 330 was held by Collin Mackie (1987-90). Fry is in 12th place on the SEC list of career points scored, one behind Georgia's Kevin Butler, two points behind Arkansas's Zach Hocker and three behind Missouri's Andrew Baggett to move into ninth place on the SEC's all-time list.
THE FRISCO KID
Senior Elliott Fry hit a season-best three field goals in the win over Western Carolina. He is 12-for-16 in field goal attempts this season (75 percent). He has connected on a school record 151 consecutive extra points and has hit 74.7 percent (65-of-87) of his career field goal attempts. That average jumps to 80.5 percent (62-of-77) when attempting from under 50 yards out. He holds the school's career records for extra points made (157) and attempted (158) and is the school's all-time leader in points scored with 352.
FRY BURNS THE `DORES
Senior placekicker Elliott Fry connected on a 48-yard field goal in the third quarter, then hit on a career-long 55-yard field goal in the final minute to provide the margin of victory in the season opener. It tied for the second-longest field goal in Gamecock history, matching Ryan Succop's 55-yarder against Vandy in the 2006 season. Only Mark Fleetwood's 58-yarder against Georgia in 1982 is longer.
GIVING IT THE BOOT: Here are the top-10 longest field goals in South Carolina history:
KICKIN' IT WITH KELLY
Senior punter Sean Kelly has been busy this season, punting 72 times, most in the SEC and the 13th most punts in the nation. He is averaging 42.5 yards with 25 inside the 20 and just four touchbacks. He has boomed 13 over 50 yards and a long of 66 yards.
TOTING THE SHEEPSKIN
The Gamecocks have five players who played the 2016 season with their undergraduate degree in hand, including Jordan Diggs, Chaz Elder, Abu Lamin, Chris Moody and Mason Zandi. Eleven more went through graduation ceremonies earlier this month, including Larenz Bryant, Darius English, T.J. Holloman, Shannon James, Sean Kelly, Marquavius Lewis, D.J. Park, Darius Paulk, Perry Orth, Jamari Smith and Jonathan Walton.
IN THE CLASSROOM
The Gamecocks placed 28 players on the 2015 SEC Fall Academic Honor Roll. Among those who made the SEC Honor Roll include returnees Rivers Bedenbaugh, Jordan Diggs, Jalen Dread, Elliott Fry, Kelsey Griffin, Terry Googer, Shannon James, Chris Lammons, Nick McGriff, Perry Orth, Jasper Sasser, Michael Scarnecchia, Demetrius Smalls, D.J. Smith, Donell Stanley and Rod Talley.
The Gamecocks have scheduled their 2017 Garnet & Black Spring Game for Saturday, April 1, beginning at 2 pm ET. The 2017 regular season will kickoff in Charlotte on Saturday, September 2, against North Carolina State.
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