FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — There were no sacks in Jadeveon Clowney’s grand return Saturday, no game-changing plays popping out on the stat sheet. But South Carolina’s defensive end made an impact.
It came in the first quarter, after Arkansas punched its first possession down the Gamecocks’ throat for a touchdown and early lead. All week, Clowney was lambasted for a perceived lack of leadership, considered a selfish player who put himself before the team.
Over on the visiting sideline of Razorback Stadium, the hulking superstar with a tendency to steal national headlines pulled the defense together, urged them to refocus.
“I was like, ‘Man, y’all better get y’all head into this game. We can’t keep doing this every week, week in and week out having close games,’ ” Clowney said. “I told them to come together, man. We’ve got to be a team out here, and be accountable. Everybody do their job.”
From that moment, South Carolina’s defense never wavered.
The Gamecocks rallied to score the final 52 points Saturday, beating Arkansas, 52-7, before a crowd of 66,302.
It was the final game in an annual series that had been played since 1992. South Carolina (5-1, 3-1 SEC East) ended the rivalry with bragging rights, winning only its third game in Fayetteville since 1992. It was also USC’s biggest blowout in series history, surpassing its 39-13 win in 1997.
The win snapped a three-game losing streak to the Razorbacks (3-4, 0-3 SEC West). Afterward, coach Steve Spurrier offered pity.
“I do feel badly for Arkansas,” Spurrier said. “It’s no fun getting your butt beat like this at home, homecoming and all that. They’re not as strong of a team as they were when they were kicking our tails the last three times I’ve been in here, but Bret (Bielema) and his guys need to recruit their way out of it. It’s going to take a little time, as we all know.”
South Carolina took a 24-7 halftime lead, thanks to a 4-yard pass from Connor Shaw to Bruce Ellington. Then the real game began.
In their past three games, the Gamecocks struggled holding onto big leads in the second half. They had allowed 51 fourth-quarter points, more than any other SEC team had given up all season.
Against Arkansas, they looked like a different team, outscoring the Hogs 28-0 in the second half and 14-0 in the final 15 minutes.
Spurrier acknowledged it was the best his team played all season. Junior cornerback Victor Hampton said the defense’s sloppy first series was a much-needed wakeup call.
“It’s disappointing because you prepare for (that first series all week),” said Hampton, whose first-quarter interception set up South Carolina’s first touchdown. “The last thing you want is for a team to feel like they can come out and punch you in the mouth and score on the first drive. We’ve just told ourselves we’ve got a whole game to play. Just stop them from now on. Don’t let them drive down the field.”
USC’s defense didn’t just hold Arkansas scoreless the rest of the way. It got better as the game went on, allowing just 248 yards and seven first downs. The Gamecocks’ defense was on the field for 37 plays Saturday, just 13 plays in the second half.
The defense allowed USC’s offense to do what it’s done all season, which is score points in bundles and seamlessly balance between its passing and running game.
Senior quarterback Connor Shaw had another strong line, completing 19 of 28 passes for 219 yards, three TDs and no interceptions before being pulled for backup Dylan Thompson early in the fourth quarter.
Ellington caught six passes for 96 yards and two touchdowns, including a 4-yard score with 13 seconds left in the first half that gave USC a 24-7 halftime lead. Sophomore tailback Mike Davis had 128 yards on 19 carries, including a 6-yard touchdown run one play after Hampton’s interception.
It was another complete offensive performance, but Saturday was about the defense. Finally, after a week of controversy, the Gamecocks’ maligned group responded with their best performance of the season.
Clowney said the defense grew closer this week.
“When I got back, I told the guys, ‘Listen, we ain’t letting everybody talk about us right now,’ ” Clowney said. “We’re just going to turn up, man. Just keep playing our game, just have fun out there. So I told them, ‘Let’s all get together, let’s have fun today, 11 hats to the ball, and play D.’
“I depend on them, and they’ve got to depend on me. So that’s what I did, told them to just get it together.”