COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — An unprecedented night by South Carolina’s defense may have rescued the Gamecocks season and sent Arkansas back down a familiar, discouraging path.
The Gamecocks (4-2, 2-2 Southeastern) scored three touchdowns on defense — returning two interceptions and a fumble — in a 48-22 win over Arkansas (2-3, 0-2) on Saturday.
After a 75-yard touchdown drive by the Razorbacks tied it at 10 early in the second quarter, Arkansas gained just 48 yards in their next 18 plays. Those plays included an Austin Allen interception Skai Moore returned 34 yards for a TD and an Allen fumble that T.J. Brunson returned 74 yards for a score.
By the time the Razorbacks started moving the ball again, the Gamecocks led 41-10 in the fourth quarter.
“Everything disintegrated right in front of us,” said Arkansas coach Brett Bielema, who will need three wins over five SEC teams he is a combined 8-15 against with the Razorbacks
South Carolina has no record of ever scoring three defensive touchdowns in the 125 years it has played football. Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp, known for his defensive mind, couldn’t remember three touchdowns from his favorite unit in his career. And Brunson — he had never been in the end zone in all his football life, either.
“That was fun. I hope to get to do it again,” Brunson said.
And all that defense helped build the confidence of an offense that had seen several shaky games but come through with two more wins than the halfway point in 2016. Jake Bentley went 16 of 31 for 199 yards and three touchdowns, including a critical 18-yard pass to Bryan Edwards in the corner of the end zone with four seconds in the first half.
Bentley spread the ball around to nine receivers as South Carolina beat a team from the SEC West for the first time since 2013.
The Gamecocks gained 358 yards, scoring on five of eight possessions in the final three quarters. Bentley was sacked just once, a week after the offense line allowed seven sacks in a loss to Texas A&M.
“It takes the pressure off of us,” Bentley said of the defense. “Their confidence is through the roof.”
Arkansas: Bielema is now 10-24 against SEC teams in his five years at Arkansas … Arkansas came in averaging 408 yards a game, while South Carolina was the SEC’s 12th ranked defense … Connor Limpert made his first college field goal, a 48-yarder in the first quarter.
South Carolina: It was the Gamecocks’ biggest SEC win since the last time they played Arkansas, a 52-7 win in 2013 … Keisean Nixon had a 45-yard interception returned for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter … Kicker Parker White continued to struggle from medium to long distance, missing a pair of 49-yard field goals. White did make kicks from 33 and 29 yards and all of his extra points … Moore’s interception was the 13th of his career, one behind Bo Davis’ record set in 1971.
The Razorbacks put in freshman quarterback Cole Kelley in the fourth quarter, and the freshman was 8 for 13 for 140 yards and led Arkansas on two touchdown drives. He also threw an interception returned for a score.
Bielema said he only put Kelley in because the team’s medical staff told him Allen couldn’t play any more. The coach did not know the extent of the injury or what exactly was wrong.
Allen was 12 of 24 for 84 yards, a TD and a pick returned for a score in three quarters and remains the starting quarterback, Bielema said.
About a dozen South Carolina players mobbed Arkansas running back David Williams at midfield after the game. It was a friendly visit.
Williams spent three years with the Gamecocks before leaving at the end of last season. He originally planned to play as a graduate transfer for Connecticut, but then the Razorbacks called.
Williams was Arkansas’ leading rusher with 32 yards on seven carries. He was happy to see all the friends he still has in Columbia, but the scoreboard blunted a lot of that happiness.
“It’s the first game my family has gone to. For us to lose like this is really embarrassing,” Williams said.
Arkansas: The Razorbacks head to No. 1 Alabama next Saturday. Bielema has never beaten the Crimson Tide, losing by an average of 22 points. After that, it’s No. 12 Auburn at home.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks head to Tennessee next Saturday.
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