A week ago, South Carolina coach Will Muschamp said his defense couldn’t be perfect. Saturday against Arkansas, it was close.
The Gamecocks defense scored three second-half touchdowns in a 48-22 rout of the Razorbacks in front of 79,416 fans at Williams-Brice Stadium.
“That was fun,” said linebacker Skai Moore, who started the defensive scoring with a 34-yard interception return in the third quarter. “Never really experienced anything like that. (Defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson) was emphasizing that we need to have a complete game this week, and I feel like we came out and did that for sure.”
It marked the first time the Gamecocks have scored three defensive touchdowns in a single game since at least 1979, and it’s the first time a Will Muschamp team has done it, Muschamp said.
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“I’ve been around two, not three,” he said.
The win stopped a two-game SEC losing streak for the Gamecocks (4-2, 2-2 SEC). Arkansas, which had been on a two-game winning streak in this series, fell to 2-3 and 0-3 in the conference.
The game was close until the third quarter, when Moore scored to put the Gamecocks ahead 27-10 with 8:33 left in the third quarter. On Arkansas’ next possession, linebacker T.J. Brunson scooped a fumble by Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen and raced 73 yards to put the Gamecocks ahead 34-10 with 4:23 left in the third.
“I was kind of wondering when the offense was going to be able to get on the field,” said running back Rico Dowdle, who had a game-high 61 yards on 11 carries.
Reserve cornerback Keisean Nixon joined the fun in the fourth quarter, intercepting Arkansas backup quarterback Cole Kelley and racing 45 yards for a touchdown.
The game marked the most points scored by the Gamecocks since a 48-34 win against Vanderbilt in 2014.
South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley threw for 199 yards and three touchdowns, and tight end Hayden Hurst was the game’s leading receiver with two catches for 76 yards.
The game was tied 10-10 with one minute left in the first half, but the Gamecocks scored the next 31 points to put the game away.
South Carolina football coach Will Muschamp speaks after the Gamecocks' win over Arkansas. McClatchy
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Star of the game: Sophomore D.J. Wonnum was a one-man wrecking crew early. Wonnum finished with four tackles, including one for a loss, one quarterback hurry and two pass breakups and seemed to be involved in every big defensive play when the game was close. “I felt like I did pretty good,” Wonnum said. “I left some plays out there, but every day I come with the mindset to play as hard as I can.”
Play of the game: The final offensive play of the first half was a doozy as Bentley lofted a fade pass to the back corner of the end zone and sophomore wide receiver Bryan Edwards made a leaping grab before getting one knee down inbounds as he fell to the turf. The 18-yard score put the Gamecocks ahead 17-10. “I was really looking at the referee. I really didn’t know (if he was inbounds) honestly,” said Edwards, who scored for the first time this year. “Anytime you get in the (end zone), it feels good. Hopefully, we can continue to build on that.”
Stat of the game: Bentley started 5-of-15 passing before heating up and finishing 16-of-31 with a passer rating of 137.5. “Arkansas did a great job of mixing it up,” Bentley said. “What we saw on film and what they did early in the game was a lot different so it took us a while to adjust.”
Carson Mason reviews three key takeaways from South Carolina's win over Arkansas. McClatchy
Hurst helping: Hurst became the third South Carolina tight end ever to surpass 1,000 career receiving yards when he hauled in a 62-yard touchdown in the first half. It was the longest touchdown of Hurst’s career and gave him 1,005 career yards. He finished with two catches for 76 yards.
OL instability: As expected South Carolina was without Zack Bailey (ankle), Cory Helms (ankle) and Malik Young (ankle) on the offensive line. D.J. Park got the start at right tackle. He was replaced in the first half by Blake Camper but returned to the spot later in the half. The Gamecocks have now used 10 offensive linemen because of injuries and ineffectiveness this season.
Field goal follies: Freshman Parker White, who entered the game 2-for-7, was 1-for-3 in the first half. White hit from a career-long 33 yards but missed two 49-yard attempts. Those misses made South Carolina 4-of-13 on field goals this season. White later hit a 29-yarder to put the Gamecocks ahead 20-10 in the third quarter. “I think you have to continue to have confidence,” Muschamp said. “He’s got the leg, he’s got the leg swing. We’ve gotten a lot of things ironed out with what he’s doing. It’s a long season. We’re going to need him to kick some kicks for us. You can’t go for it on every fourth down. We’re going to go for it on a bunch, but we can’t go for it on all of them.”
Who: South Carolina at Tennessee
When: 12 p.m. Oct. 14
Where: Knoxville, Tenn., Neyland Stadium
TV: SEC Network
South Carolina players and coaches, including Will Muschamp, greet former Gamecock David Williams after the game Saturday. McClatchydmclemore@thestate.com