COLUMBIA -- Saturday turned out to be the day that University of South Carolina football fans have yearned to see for so long.
It was the day the offense and defense came together for a dominating effort against a Southeastern Conference …
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It was the day the offense and defense came together for a dominating effort against a Southeastern Conference opponent.
With the defense contributing three touchdowns, the Gamecocks trounced Arkansas 48-22 in a game that saw the Razorbacks push across two fourth-quarter touchdowns after the game was well out of reach.
After averaging slightly more than 15 points per game over the last three weeks and 22.6 a game over its first five games, USC went over the 40-point mark against a Power 5 team for the first time since Nov. 1, 2014, when Tennessee came to Williams-Brice Stadium and left with a 45-42 overtime victory. That 2014 team, which finished 7-6 in Steve Spurrier's final full season as USC's head coach, also passed the 40-point mark in a 48-34 win at Vanderbilt.
By contrast, the Razorbacks had gone over 40 points three times in their first four games, including a 50-43 overtime loss to Texas A&M, and 13 times since 2015, second in the SEC only to Alabama's 14 such games in that span. Arkansas holds an 11-2 record in those 13 games, but the Gamecock defense made sure the Razorbacks would not get anywhere close to that output on Saturday.
The unexpected overabundance of points and comfortable winning margin must have been a welcome site for many who count themselves among Gamecock Nation, but have the Gamecocks turned a corner and will they gain any momentum for the remainder of their season from such a dominating conference win? The answer to that question varied on Saturday night.
While pleased with his team's overall effort on Saturday, South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp was not ready to say that this win is going to suddenly give his team more confidence and make it looser heading into the second half of the season.
"I don't know that. I think we've been pretty loose," said Muschamp, whose team stands at 4-2 overall and 2-2 in the SEC heading into a noon showdown on Saturday at Tennessee. "I don't know that in our first six games I've ever questioned our effort. I don't know that I've questioned our buy-in. Has it always been exactly what you wanted? No.
"Let's just cut to the chase. From an effort standpoint, our guys give effort. I don't turn on the tape and get disappointed like I was at times last year in how we competed. Our guys have a competitive edge about themselves in what they try and do. From that standpoint, as long as you get consistent effort and you play with better toughness, which I think we have, I think we've improved from
Game 1 to Game 6."
Tight end Hayden Hurst, who hauled in a 62-yard first-half touchdown pass that made him only the third South Carolina tight end to pass 1,000 yards receiving, pointed to the run game's 159 yards on 36 carries as a positive that the team can build on over the second half of the season.
"I think it's big for our confidence, especially on offense where we can run the ball like that and control the front. That's what we've been looking for all year," said Hurst, a junior who now stands four catches shy of setting a new school record for tight end career receptions. "Then when your defense is playing the way they played tonight, that's huge. We just feed off that energy."
While agreeing that the win will help the team moving forward, sophomore running back Rico Dowdle still sees work ahead if the Gamecocks hope to build on their 4-2 record and earn a quality bowl bid.
"I think it most definitely does (help)," said Dowdle, who ran for a team-high 61 yards on 11 carries. "Right now we are focused on this win, but tomorrow we are going to come in and practice for Tennessee and take it one day at a time."
Sophomore quarterback Jake Bentley, who completed 16 of 31 passes for 199 yards and three scores, said a game like this does help the team's confidence moving forward.
"For sure. We knew going into this game that it was a big game for us," Bentley said. "We just had to come out there and play well and play hard. That's what we did, and I think it is going to propel us for the rest of the season. We have a big game next week against Tennessee and then the bye week, so it's another big game for us, another big SEC game. This will definitely help us and our confidence."
Senior linebacker Skai Moore, who is now one pick away from tying Bo Davies' school record of 14 career interceptions after returning an interception 34 yards for a score, felt pretty good about his team moving forward after Saturday's blowout win.
"It's good. After a big win, it's always a great feeling," Moore said. "We put in a lot of hard work throughout the week, so whenever our work shows on Saturday it's a good feeling. We just want to continue it."
Sophomore linebacker T.J. Brunson, a Columbia native and Richland Northeast High School alum, contributed to the defense's big day with a 73-yard fumble recovery return, marking his "first ever time being in the end zone."
"It was kind of fun," Brunson said. "I think I knew it was going to come eventually, something I thought was going to happen and I'm thankful (it did happen). It was really cool to be at home and make plays like that."
Brunson said he definitely felt that this was the defense's most complete game of the season thus far.
"I think we are all locked in and on the same page," he said. "That is the biggest thing, everyone was on the same page."
Saturday also marked the return of former South Carolina running back David Williams to Williams-Brice Stadium. Williams, now a graduate transfer for the Razorbacks, ran for 1,058 yards and five touchdowns in 29 games as a Gamecock.
"I actually had chills on the bus ride, just seeing everything and reminiscing on what what I did here and the fun I had here," Williams, who rushed for a team-high 32 yards on seven carries, said of his return to Columbia. "I was a little nervous, but as the game started I was straight."
This was the first meeting between the two former cross-division partners, who entered the conference together in 1992, since 2013, when the Gamecocks set series records for most points scored and largest margin of victory in a 52-7 blowout win at Fayetteville. USC also won 38-20 in 2012, the last series game played in Columbia before Saturday. South Carolina still trails the overall series, 13-10, but now owns a 7-5 advantage over Arkansas in games played at Williams-Brice.
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