South Carolina is UMass’ latest opportunity for a big win

  • South Carolina wide receiver Deebo Samuel (1) celebrates a touchdown with teammates Jacob August (40) and Malik Young (77) during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Georgia on Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016, in Columbia, S.C. Georgia won 28-14. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt) Rainier Ehrhardt

  • South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp looks on from the sideline during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Georgia on Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt) Rainier Ehrhardt

Friday, October 21, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. – The UMass football team needs a big win badly.

The program needs a tent-pole triumph to build on and promote the program. The squad needs something to divert its struggles and give it momentum in the road-heavy second half of the season.

Facing South Carolina — Saturday, noon, Williams-Brice Stadium — offers one more chance this season to knock off a Power 5 team. Of UMass’ five remaining games, BYU and probably Troy look like better teams than the rebuilding Gamecocks, but USC’s SEC pedigree makes it a bigger trophy than any other Minuteman foe remaining.

“We’re very eager. We’re burning for one,” said junior defensive lineman Ali Ali-Musa. “That’s our mindset right now. We want to win and nothing is going to hold us back. (Winning) would eliminate a lot of our frustration right now.”

UMass (1-6) has played better against higher-profile opponents this season. The Minutemen were still in the game at Florida and against Mississippi State at the start of the fourth quarter, but couldn’t get over the top.

UMass coach Mark Whipple thought his team wouldn’t be intimidated after those experiences.

“We’d obviously like to see a win. We’d like to see improvement and growth. I think we have in these games,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll lack confidence which may be hard for people to believe. They practice hard and they practiced well. We have to play well. We have to eliminate that flat tire we get for five minutes on both sides of the ball.”

South Carolina is struggling. After going to nine bowl games in 10 seasons under Steve Spurrier, the coach abruptly quit last year in the midst of a 3-9 (1-7 SEC) season.

New coach Will Muschamp has the program in mid-rebuild. The Gamecocks (2-4, 1-4 SEC) opened with a win over Vanderbilt and beat East Carolina, but fell to Kentucky, Mississippi State, Texas A&M and Georgia.

“They’re very talented all-around. We haven’t looked at their record at all,” said UMass sophomore quarterback Andrew Ford. “We know what South Carolina is – a traditional powerhouse in college football. I still think that they’re like that based on the film we’ve watched, very talented everywhere on the field and it’s going to take our best game to have a shot.”

USC needs to win at least four of its last six games to become bowl eligible. With No. 18 Tennessee, No. 15 Florida and No. 4 Clemson still upcoming, beating UMass is essential to reaching that goal.

Offense has been a struggle for the Gamecocks, who are averaging 304.5 yards of total offense, which puts them 13th out of 14 teams in the SEC. Running the ball has been particularly problematic as their 92.33 yards per game is last in the conference.

While nothing has been made official, Muschamp is expected to start true freshman Jake Bentley at quarterback in hopes of kick starting the offense. If USC is willing to burn the redshirt of a highly touted quarterback halfway through the season, its unlikely to overlook the Minutemen.

Whipple said overlooking Bentley because it’s his first start would be folly.

“He’s a talented guy. We saw his high school stuff. There’s a reason he’s in the SEC. We may try to disguise it a little bit, but we’re not saying we have a veteran defense right now,” he said. “It’s more about not giving him anything easy and making sure we don’t give up the deep ball.”

UMass will try to shake Bentley early.

“Anytime a freshman is playing they have a lot on their mind as they try to get up to speed,” UMass junior Da’Sean Downey said. “When you have the D-line hitting him, it makes it 10 times worse. If we let him sit back there, he’ll pick us apart. He’s at South Carolina for a reason.”

Ali-Musa agreed.

“Nobody wants to get hit, especially if you don’t see it coming. Hopefully we get a lot of good hits on the quarterback,” Ali-Musa said. “We’re trying to put our foot on he snake and not take it off.”

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage