By Josh Hyber/Photo by SC Athletics
OXFORD, Miss. — So much for all that chatter about slow starts. So much for South Carolina averaging 6.2 points per game in first quarters this season. So much for Ole Miss trying to pooch its kickoffs to prevent long returns from Deebo Samuel.
Oh yeah, so much for Mississippi’s potent attack that entered Saturday ranked third the SEC in scoring and first in pass offense.
Even though that unit flexed its muscle on Saturday at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, South Carolina (5-3, 4-3 SEC) kept pace, outscored Ole Miss in the second half and hung on for a 48-44 come-from-behind victory over the Rebels (5-4, 1-4 SEC).
“The resiliency and the fight this football team has, they keep hanging in there regardless of the circumstance or situation,” South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp said. “It says a lot about the coaching staff and the culture of our program. When we’re in tight situations, we’re going to make the plays we need to make to win the game.”
Jake Bentley — in what Muschamp called a “gutsy” and “outstanding” performance — completed 22 of 32 passes for 363 yards and two touchdowns while Bryan Edwards and Ty’Son Williams both eclipsed 100 yards receiving.
Ole Miss quarterback Jordan Ta’amu, the conference leader in passing yards entering Saturday, completed 31 passes for 379 yards. He also ran for 66. Running back Scottie Phillips rushed for 141 yards and three touchdowns.
“Up and down the field, both defenses had a hard time stopping anybody,” Muschamp said. “I give Ole Miss credit. They kept fighting to stay in the game. They were really efficient offensively.”
The teams matched explosive play for explosive play all afternoon and came out of the halftime break tied at 27. It was the second-most points the Gamecocks scored in a first-half this season, trailing its season-opener against Coastal Carolina by one. Defensively though, it was the team’s worst half of the season.
“They had an open week to get ready for this ballgame and they certainly threw some things at us that we didn’t necessarily adjust well for,” Muschamp said. “But you’ve got to keep playing and you’ve got to stay positive.
“And they weren’t stopping us offensively.”
Luke Logan gave Ole Miss its first lead of the game, at 30-27, with a 31-yard field goal three minutes into the third quarter, but South Carolina receiver Josh Vann caught a 5-yard touchdown pass from Bentley two minutes later to give the Gamecocks the lead back at 34-30.
Ole Miss, predictably, responded. Twice.
Phillips took a Ta’amu pitch from two yards into the end zone, giving the Rebels a 37-34 lead heading into the fourth quarter. Then, after a Mon Denson run fell short on a 4th-and-inches, Ole Miss took over and scored on one a 1-yard rushing touchdown from Isaiah Woullard.
It was the first double-digit lead of the day for the Rebels.
But South Carolina’s defense — which was ravaged by injuries all afternoon long and allowed 616 yards — came through with four-straight stops to end the game. Muschamp and safety Steven Montac credited the improvement to the defense’s switch from zone to man-to-man coverage.
“Say what you want to about the score,” Bentley said. “They played big when we needed it.”
The Gamecock offense took advantage.
Three-straight Denson carries, a 17-yard catch by Edwards and a nine-yard catch from Vann set up an A.J. Turner three-yard touchdown run. A Parker White extra-point cut the Gamecocks’ deficit to 44-41 with 11:01 to play.
On the team’s next offensive possession, Denson burst for 69 yards to give the Gamecocks 1st-and-goal. Three plays later Bentley ran in from four yards to give the Gamecocks an eventual 48-44 lead with 5:50 to go.
“We had to respond. That was the message all day, really,” Bentley said. “… In that moment, nobody panicked. Nobody got rattled. Really just an awesome job by everyone to stay calm and know that we have the ability to go down the field and score.
“And that’s what we did.”
Muschamp talked after the game about how South Carolina coaches preach resiliency and winning games in the fourth quarter. “In our league, regardless of the circumstance, who you’re playing or the situation, the games come down to the fourth quarter,” he said.
“I can’t say enough about our players just hanging in there and doing what they had to do to win a football game,” he said a few minutes earlier. “… The one thing you can’t question is the fight of our football team.”
Samuel’s early return — which initially hit the hands of up-man Eric Douglas — gave the Gamecocks the early lead, and Ty’Son Williams added to it with a 2-yard touchdown run after he scatted 50 yards on a catch and run the play before.
“I was just being patient, letting the blocks come and then I saw the hole,” Samuel said. “So I hit it. … Luckily it slipped out of his hands and I made the play.”
Samuel’s message to Douglas after the play: “Shoot man, I’m glad you dropped it.”
It was just the third time this season the Gamecocks scored first.
Ole Miss marched 53 yards to the Gamecock 24-yard line, but Ta’amu threw a pass behind the line of scrimmage that fell incomplete. South Carolina defensive end D.J. Wonnum pounced on it to give the Gamecocks possession.
Bentley found Shi Smith for a 38-yard connection on the drive to set up a Parker White 20-yard field goal to give the Gamecocks a 17-3 lead. The Gamecocks had its most points scored in a first quarter — and most in the first quarter of a road game since scoring 17 at Georgia in 2009 — this season.
On the third play of the second quarter, Phillips bounced outside and ran in for a 9-yard touchdown that cut the home team’s deficit to one score at 17-10. Another Logan 26-yard field goal made it 17-13.
After seeing limited time throughout the first-half, Bryan Edwards returned by making a one-handed snag with an outreached right hand around Ole Miss defensive back Isaiah Woullard. He scattered into the end zone to complete the 75-yard touchdown catch.
Ta’amu (17 yards) and Phillips (1 yard) sandwiched touchdown runs around a White 23-yard field goal as the teams went into the halftime break even at 27.