South Carolina’s Jake Bentley and South Florida’s Quinton Flowers staged an old-style shootout at an old school stadium Thursday afternoon.
In the end, the Gamecocks’ misfires cost them a chance to keep up with another big day from the Bulls’ veteran quarterback, as Flowers accounted for 366 total yards in a 46-39 overtime victory for South Florida in the Birmingham Bowl.
A crowd of 31,229, split evenly between the two fan bases, watched the first overtime game in Birmingham Bowl history in Legion Field, former home to Iron Bowls and the USFL.
“You score 39 points, you ought to win, but proud of our guys’ effort,” said South Carolina coach Will Muschamp, who finished his first season at the helm with a 6-7 record. “Our guys fought all year.”
Bentley outdueled Flowers in the individual battle, setting a Birmingham Bowl record with 381 yards of total offense as the Gamecocks set the bowl record with 481 total yards. Bentley completed 32 of 43 passes for a career-high 390 yards and three touchdowns after throwing for 23 yards in the first quarter.
“I thought he was outstanding,” Muschamp said. “He’s (supposed to be) a high school senior, and he threw for 400 yards in a bowl game. I thought he played extremely well. We need more like him.”
Bentley’s efforts were undone by five South Carolina turnovers, including three of his own. He had two interceptions, including one returned 47 yards for a touchdown, and fumbled on the final play of the game when he was sacked. Freshman running backs Rico Dowdle and A.J. Turner each fumbled the ball at South Florida’s 1-yard line in the second half, and the Gamecocks had another turnover on downs inside the South Florida 10-yard line.
“For the whole game, we shot ourselves in the foot, just turnovers at inopportune times,” South Carolina tight end Hayden Hurst said.
The game’s 85 combined points were a Birmingham Bowl record and both teams broke the game’s total yardage record. The Gamecocks had their second-highest total of the season, and the Bulls finished with 469 yards.
“We knew their secondary wasn’t that good, so we were going to be taking shots all game,” said South Carolina wide receiver Deebo Samuel, who set Birmingham Bowl records with 14 catches for 190 yards. “The coaches said we have to score points to beat these guys, so that’s what we tried to do.”
South Florida scored on the first play of overtime when Flowers found tight end Elkanah Dillon for a 25-yard touchdown pass that put the Bulls up 46-39 following the extra point. South Carolina’s overtime possession ended when it failed to convert on fourth-and-5 from the 8-yard line as Bentley was sacked.
The Bulls improved to 11-2. South Carolina knew coming into the game that stopping Flowers was the key to stopping the Bulls, but the American Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year wouldn’t cooperate. The junior had 261 yards passing, 105 yards rushing and set a Birmingham Bowl record with three rushing touchdowns, all of which came in the game’s first 20 minutes.
Muschamp blamed poor tackling and speed differences for his team’s slow defensive start.
“We didn’t do anything different in the second half, and we gave up 110 yards,” Muschamp said. “It’s extremely frustrating, but it’s been frustrating for a while now.”
South Florida led 15-0 after the first quarter and had an 18-point lead after safety Tajee Fullwood returned an interception 47 yards for a touchdown that put the Bulls up 39-21 with 7:06 left in the third quarter. However, South Carolina scored the final 18 points of regulation, including a 1-yard touchdown run by Turner and 2-point conversion catch by Hurst with 1:11 left in the game.
Bryson Allen-Williams made a diving interception near the start of the fourth quarter that stopped a South Florida drive at the Gamecocks 23-yard line and turned the momentum. The Bulls led 39-24 at the time, but didn’t score again in regulation. “We were very energized,” Allen-Williams said. “Once we got the turnover, we saw the offense start clicking, but it really doesn’t matter when you don’t get the victory. We have to rebuild and keep getting better and that’s pretty much it.”
Star of the game: Bentley started off slow, including an overthrown pass that was intercepted to set up South Florida’s first touchdown, but threw for 367 yards and three touchdowns in the final three quarters. His 390 passing yards bested his previous career high by 136 yards. His three passing touchdowns also were a career best.
Play of the game: Chris Lammons’ 39-yard punt return to the Bulls’ 2-yard line set up South Carolina’s tying touchdown (a 1-yard run by Turner) and 2-point conversion (pass from Bentley to Hurst) with 1:11 to play.
Stat of the game: The Gamecocks, who averaged 6.2 yards per play, managed their second-best offensive output of the season despite converting only 4 of 13 third-down attempts.