By Jeff Owens/Photo by SC Athletics
This was supposed to be about how South Carolina dropped another tough SEC game because it once again couldn’t run the football and couldn’t stop opposing offenses.
That was the story for most of the game Saturday at Ole Miss.
And then, suddenly, all that changed.
Backup running back Mon Denson suddenly gave the Gamecocks a big boost on offense and the beleaguered and depleted defense rose up like a phoenix to shut down the explosive Rebels and save the day. The result was a thrilling, season-saving 48-44 victory in Oxford.
There were numerous heroes for the Gamecocks.
Deebo Samuel returned the opening kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown. Bryan Edwards had a spectacular 75-yard touchdown catch. Jake Bentley had one of the best games of his career, completing 22-of-32 passes for 363 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for another one.
But it was Denson and the defense who won this game.
With Rico Dowdle and Ty’Son Williams both leaving the game with injuries, the Gamecocks struggled to run the ball for most of the day. They had just 46 yards rushing at halftime and with both Dowdle and Williams on the sideline and the defense sucking wind, things looked bleak.
When Denson got stuffed on fourth-and-one late in the third quarter, it looked like South Carolina was doomed.
Ole Miss converted the turnover into another touchdown to take a 44-34 lead and with the Gamecock defense already having given up more than 600 yards of total offense, South Carolina’s chances of a critical road victory looked slim.
But South Carolina’s offense kept plugging away. An A.J. Turner touchdown run cut the lead to 44-41 and the Gamecocks suddenly had momentum.
That’s when the defense came alive, roughing up Ole Miss quarterback Jordan Ta’amu and stopping the Rebels for the first time all day.
Then Denson made the play of the game, busting up the middle and sprinting down field for a 69-yard gain, the longest run of the season for the Gamecocks. Three plays later, Bentley scrambled into the end zone for a touchdown to give the Gamecocks a 48-44 lead.
But with four minutes left in the game, South Carolina was still vulnerable. The Rebels had scored at will the whole game, passing for 379 yards and rushing for 237. They had plenty of time to win the game.
But once again, a defense that had been run over all day and ravaged by injuries rose up and stood tall. A third-down sack by linebacker T.J. Brunson stopped Ole Miss for the third straight possession. When the Rebels got the ball back with 2:17 remaining, they suddenly looked lost against the South Carolina defense. They gained just one first down before the Gamecocks successfully defended three straight passes to end the game.
There were plenty of heroes on defense. D.J. Wonnum had a big fumble recovery early in the game. Brunson had 1.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss among his 15 stops in his best game of the season. Keisean Nixon, Steven Montac and freshman R.J. Rodercik each had double-digit tackles. And role players like Shameik Blackshear, Daniel Fennell and freshman Rick Sandidge came up with big plays.
The Gamecocks still have plenty of problems on defense. Many were exposed by Ole Miss and magnified by a rash of injuries. But they did what they have done often under Will Muschamp — fight to the end.
Just like three weeks ago against Missouri and last week against Tennessee, Muschamp’s Gamecocks found a way to win.
“Our team rallied together and we answered the call when we had to,” Bentley told SEC Network after the game. “No one got rattled and we understood what we had to do.”
In a big game they had to win, the much-criticized Bentley stepped up and had one of his finest games. And he had plenty of help from plenty of unsung heroes. Samuel, Edwards, Denson and a defense that has a knack for making big plays in the biggest moment.
The result is a two-game winning streak, a 5-3 record and a chance to have another successful season. And a gutsy, clutch performance to build upon.