COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s youth movement seems to be heading in the right direction.
After Saturday’s 31-21 homecoming victory over Missouri, the third victory in a row for the Gamecocks at Williams-Brice Stadium, the program is over .500 and closing in on bowl eligibility.
First-year coach Will Muschamp has a talented cast of freshmen and sophomores to thank for the turn in fortunes.
Consider a key sequence of events in the third quarter. With the score tied at 21 and momentum in Missouri’s favor, sophomore Rashad Fenton picked off a Drew Lock pass at the Gamecock 2.
Freshman quarterback Jake Bentley led a 98-yard drive that was aided by some clutch receptions by sophomore Deebo Samuel. And freshman Rico Dowdle polished it off with a 20-yard scoring burst that was highlighted by a nifty spin move.
South Carolina (5-4, 3-4 Southeastern Conference) won’t be challenging for a berth in a major bowl this year. But with three games remaining, including a home contest with Western Carolina, the Gamecocks seem to be in good shape to reach the necessary six wins to earn a bowl invitation.
“I’ve got to credit our staff and our players,” Muschamp said. “If you’ve got a group of bad eggs in the locker room, you will not survive that situation. We didn’t have that. We had a bunch of guys who continued to work, go after it and improve.”
A week after beating Tennessee, Muschamp and his coaching staff warned the team to avoid the mouse traps. In other words, focus on the game ahead.
“I told them this team coming in was extremely capable,” Muschamp said. “I told them don’t take the cheese.”
South Carolina’s defense did allow 465 yards, but it held its opponent under 30 points for the ninth consecutive game.
Special teams were also a factor. Missouri (2-7, 0-5 SEC) missed two field goals, while South Carolina kicker Elliott Fry became the Gamecocks’ all-time leading scorer with his second PAT of the game. He surpassed Collin Mackie, who held the record with 330. Fry now has converted a school record 144 consecutive extra points, and he booted a 24-yard field goal.
South Carolina’s run defense looked a little shaky in the first half as the Gamecocks allowed a pair of long touchdown runs, and Missouri’s runners went into the end zone virtually untouched on both. Damarea Crockett burst up the middle from 29 yards out, and Ish Witter repeated the effort from 25 yards out.
But after allowing a touchdown early in the third quarter, the Gamecocks clamped down.
Bentley won his third game in a row as starting quarterback, and he finished 22 of 28 for 254 yards and two touchdowns. Dowdle rushed for 149 yards and a touchdown, and Samuel caught nine passes for 125 yards.
Reach John Boyette at (706) 823-3337