COLUMBIA - Sometimes the best offense is a good defense.
In the University of South Carolina's case on Saturday, it was a great defense that produced three scores to turn what had been a close Southeastern Conference football game against Arkansas into a 48-22 rout.
"I'm really pleased with how our football team responded to a gut-wrenching loss last week," South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp said, referring to a 24-17 loss at Texas A&M in which the Gamecocks let a 17-7 lead get away from them. "We spilled our guts and played extremely hard in that game.... When you go through that and you see the hurt in the locker room at the end you're worried about the next week, regardless of the circumstances or the situation. I want to take this opportunity to thank our fans for an unbelievable environment."
The game turned with a pivotal 4 minutes, 10 seconds stretch in the third quarter that produced two of the defensive scores. Three plays after a 30-yard Parker White field goal put the Gamecocks up 20-10, senior defensive lineman Ulric Jones pressured Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen, forcing him toward the home sidelines. As Allen was heading out of bounds he launched a pass that linebacker Skai Moore corralled and took untouched into the end zone. The interception was the 13th of Moore's career, leaving the Cooper City, Fla., senior one shy of the school record held by Bo Davies, who played for the Gamecocks from 1969-71.
On Arkansas' next series, USC's defense returned two fumbles to the end zone. While the first, on a return by defensive back Steven Montac, was reversed, the second one stood as defensive lineman Dante Sawyer sacked Allen for an 8-yard loss, forcing a fumble that linebacker T.J. Brunson scooped up and brought back 73 yards to give the Gamecocks a 34-10 lead.
Former Crestwood High School standout and current USC running back Ty'Son Williams found the end zone on a 3-yard pass from quarterback Jake Bentley early in the fourth quarter to increase the lead to 41-10.
Special teams later got involved as punter Joseph Charlton boomed a 58-yard punt that hit just in front of the goal-line pylon, pinning the Razorbacks at their 1-yard line as all the bounces were literally going Carolina's way. Arkansas worked the ball out to its 40 before another pick-6, this time for 45 yards by Keisean Nixon, put an exclamation point on a resounding Gamecock victory as USC improved to 4-2 overall and 2-2 in SEC play.
"It was fun. I've never experienced anything like that playing, so it was a good experience," Moore said of the defense scoring three times. "T Rob (defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson) was emphasizing that we have a complete game this week, so I think we definitely came out and did that for sure."
Arkansas, which dropped to 2-3 and 0-2, would add two garbage time scores on a 4-yard David Williams run and a 34-yard pass from Allen to Jonathan Nance, to make the final score closer than it likely should have been. Before Moore's pick-6, Carolina's defense had held the Razorbacks to 104 yards total offense, but the late yardage pushed Arkansas' total to 330 yards, compared to 358 for USC.
"I thought we played a clean game, until late in the game, defensively. That was embarrassing," Muschamp said of Arkansas' late yardage and points. "I thought offensively we established the run well. We wore them down in the third quarter. We ran the ball well. Defensively, we had some huge plays with turnovers. I told (Arkansas head coach) Bret (Bielema) at the end, you can't win with those turnovers and turnovers with scores off of them."
The Gamecocks started from their 35 after the opening kickoff went into the end zone and moved the ball fairly well. Bentley connected with three different receivers and tight end Hayden Hurst gained 13 on a designed run. Carolina even converted a fourth down, but the drive ended with White wide left on a 49-yard field goal attempt.
White would have a chance to redeem himself shortly after as Brunson scooped up a fumble at the Arkansas 15 on a pass play from Austin Allen to Cheyenne O'Grady. The Gamecocks failed to advance the ball from there and White came on to nail a 33-yard kick, giving USC a 3-0 lead with 9:52 to go in the opening quarter.
After the ensuing kickoff, the Razorbacks embarked on an 8-play, 45-yard drive that would end with a 48-yard field goal from Connor Limpert. David Williams broke off a 23-yard run to open the drive, which was aided by a questionable pass interference call against Carolina that gave Arkansas a third-down conversion and pushed the Razorbacks just within Limpert's range.
The score would remain tied at 3-3 until Ty'Son Williams saw the field for the first time as the second quarter commenced. With the Gamecocks taking over at their 35, Williams rushed for three yards before Bentley hit a wide-open Hurst for a 62-yard score and a 10-3 Carolina lead with 14:15 to go in the half. The play represented the longest reception of Hurst's career and also pushed him over 1,000 career passing yards, the third tight end to reach that mark in the program's history. Former Scott's Branch High School standout and current New York Giant Jerell Adams is now fourth on that list with 977 yards.
"That's news to me. I had no idea," Hurst said when asked about his ascent up the tight end career statistical lists. "I'll let you guys worry about the stat stuff. Like I always say, whatever coach dials up, I'm going to go out there and run as hard as I can, I'm going to jump for the passes that Jake is throwing to me, and that's just how I play the game."
The Razorbacks appeared to have tied the game on a 23-yard David Williams reception, but replays showed that Williams had stepped out at the 7. Williams ran to the 5 on the next play, with Allen running for no gain on second down. Allen then passed to Jordan Jones for the score, tying the game once again with 8:26 left in the half on a 12-play, 75-yard drive.
All three USC running backs saw the field on the next Gamecock possession, with Ty'Son Williams gaining 12 yards on three carries. The 10-play, 44-yard drive would end with White clanging a 49-yard field goal attempt off the right upright.
The Gamecocks closed the first half with an 8-play, 69-yard drive that culminated with an 18-yard pass from Bentley to Bryan Edwards. Dowdle rushed three times for 15 yards while Bentley completed three of five passes for 44 yards. Carolina also benefited from a pass interference call on a Bentley pass to Edwards in the end zone two plays before the score, which came with four seconds on the clock and put USC up 17-10.
Dowdle continued to assert himself on the Gamecocks' opening drive of the second half, rushing four times for 31 yards on a 9-play, 50-yard drive that led to a 30-yard White field goal and a 20-10 Carolina lead with 9:28 on the third quarter clock.
Dowdle, who Muschamp said was healthy for the first time since the N.C. State game to open the season, headed up Carolina's running back by committee. The final totals showed Dowdle with 61 yards on 11 carries, Williams with 35 yards on eight attempts and A.J. Turner at 21 yards on five rushes. Sophomore Mon Denson also saw playing time late and ran eight times for 25 yards.