COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina coach Will Muschamp isn’t surprised by the early success of freshman quarterback Jake Bentley.
"I don’t think the moment is too big for him," Muschamp said.
It hasn’t been so far, anyway.
Bentley improved to 3-0 as a starter, throwing for 254 yards and two touchdowns as South Carolina handed Missouri its 11th straight SEC loss, 31-21 on Saturday. Bentley showed poise, strength and accuracy in the pocket, completing 22 of 28 passes to lead the Gamecocks (5-4, 3-4 SEC) to their third straight victory and keep them in contention in the SEC East.
The Gamecocks are in the midst of a rebuilding project with 78 percent of their roster consisting of underclassmen, but they appear to be on the right track. Freshman running back Rico Dowdle ran for 149 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries and also hauled in a 17-yard TD strike from Bentley.
"Jake is bringing a lot of energy to the offense, and when we have a man-to-man matchup we like we’re going to take it," said wide receiver Deebo Samuel, another young star for the Gamecocks.
Samuel, a sophomore, had 125 yards receiving on nine catches and also ran for a score.
"He muscled us around a little bit," said Missouri coach Barry Odom.
Bentley was off limits after the game because of a team rule instituted by Muschump preventing freshman from talking to the media.
"He’s very level headed and a very humble young man," Muschamp said. "He handles the moment very well."
Drew Lock threw for 302 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions for Missouri (2-7, 0-5).
South Carolina didn’t let down after pulling off a 24-21 upset of 18th-ranked Tennessee last week. One of South Carolina’s assistant coaches set mousetraps around the locker room earlier in the week to remind players it was a trap game.
"Everyone is patting you on the back, but I told our players ‘Don’t take the cheese,’" Muschamp said.
With the game tied at 21 late in the third quarter, Rashad Fenton intercepted Lock near the goal line on a deep ball along the right sideline. Bentley led a 98-yard drive, culminating in a go-ahead 20-yard TD run by Dowdle.
Bentley showed poise beyond his years in his third start.
Late in the first half, he took a sack on a second-and-goal at the 1 rather than throw the ball away. Rather than dwelling on the loss, Bentley tossed a six-yard TD pass to tight end K.C. Crosby on the next play to give the Gamecocks a 21-14 lead at half.
"When Jake is in there, we feel like we can score from anywhere on the field," said Gamecocks tight end Hayden Hurst.
View from the sidelines: college football cheerleaders 2016.
MISSOURI: Odom said "it hurts on a lot of different levels" that he wasn’t able to get this group of seniors into a bowl game. "They entrusted me in putting them in position to have a great senior (season) and that one is going to bother me," Odom said. "… I’m frustrated in myself that we haven’t played a complete game yet."
SOUTH CAROLINA: Bentley looks like the real deal for the Gamecocks, which makes you wonder why they waited so long to play the true freshman. The defense, which hasn’t allowed an opponent to score 30 points all season, can hang with anyone.
TARGETING THE QB: Missouri linebacker Cale Garrett was ejected less than five minutes into the game for targeting Bentley. Garrett became the fourth Missouri player ejected for targeting this season, joining Ronnell Perkins, Marcell Frazier and Brandon Lee.
South Carolina’s Chris Lammons was ejected from the game in the second quarter for a similar hit on Lock.
JUST FOR KICKS: Senior kicker Elliott Fry became South Carolina’s all-time leading scorer when he converted an extra point in the second quarter to give him 331 for his career. Fry called it a "special honor" to be at the top, even if someone knocks him off that pinnacle soon.
STREAK CONTINUES: The Tigers haven’t won an SEC game since Oct. 3, 2015, when they won at home against South Carolina.
SCORING OUTBURST: South Carolina isn’t used to playing high-scoring games, at least in conference play. The Gamecocks’ 31 points were their most in an SEC game since a 45-42 overtime loss to Vanderbilt in 2014.
MISSED CHANCES: Missouri’s Tucker McCann missed a pair of fourth-quarter field goals, including one with 4:49 left in the game that would have cut the South Carolina lead to seven.
MISSOURI: The Tigers return home to host Vanderbilt next Saturday.
SOUTH CAROLINA: The Gamecocks travel to Florida on Saturday to face the Gators, who have they have beaten in four of the last six meetings.