COLUMBIA – Five years of frustration and five weeks of desperation poured from the sideline.
Embattled South Carolina coach Will Muschamp could finally grin for a postgame handshake and his players could finally enjoy a win over a notable opponent. South Carolina beat Kentucky, 24-7, Saturday night to snap a five-year losing streak in the series and give the Gamecocks their first win in seven tries over a Power-5 opponent.
“You go into an open week, you want to go in with a win, obviously,” Muschamp said. “That was a commanding win, and that’s what we needed to have going into an open week.”
The win injected confidence into a season that started spectacularly sour. At 2-3 (1-2 SEC), nobody is booking reservations for the College Football Playoff, but USC fans can definitely see a way out of their team's self-imposed hole.
The Gamecocks, keyed by a powerful running game and a no-nonsense defense, stuffed the Wildcats. It was just what USC needed going into its bye week. Yes, the opponent after the bye (Oct. 12 at No. 3 Georgia) is formidable, but winning four of the final six after that for bowl eligibility doesn’t look impossible.
After a win, especially against an opponent that had dominated them for the last half-decade, it looked positively rosy.
What went right
USC wanted to concentrate on running the football, and did so. Rico Dowdle was the game’s MVP, toting the ball 15 times for 102 yards and the game-clinching touchdown to start the third quarter. Dowdle suffered an injury in the fourth quarter and was helped off the field.
Tavien Feaster had 15 carries for 107 yards and two touchdowns.
“Last week, it just opened our eyes. We just got to do the little things right,” center Donell Stanley said. “Once we do the little things and get some things going, we’re a hard team to beat.”
Quarterback Ryan Hilinski was solid, not taking too many downfield chances, but reliable when he had to throw.
The Gamecocks’ defense was masterful. Kentucky quarterback Sawyer Smith was beaten up coming into the game, and USC was able to take advantage by letting him throw early (and covering his often-missed receivers) before teeing off on him late.
The Wildcats’ two-headed tailback tandem of A.J. Rose and Kavosiey Smoke was chained to a stake, Smoke missing the second half with an illness and Rose collecting a mere 33 yards. Even when using the “Wildcat” package that had given USC so much trouble in the last five games against Kentucky, the visitors couldn't get going.
In a battle of the top two punters in the country, USC’s Joseph Charlton kicked nine times for a 51.2-yard average.
What went wrong
USC lost its head offensively a couple of times, still stuck in deciding what to do. The Gamecocks were victimized when a first-quarter punt bounced off the back of cover man Darius Rush, who was trying to provide a block, and Kentucky recovered the ball.
When the Gamecocks got the ball back they came out without a running back, though they had been running the ball effectively. The drive went nowhere.
USC also had costly penalties and mistakes that wiped out big plays or opportunities. On consecutive plays, J.J. Enagbare brought down Smith with a horse-collar tackle when he had a third-down stop, and then Sherrod Greene ran into teammate Jaycee Horn just as Horn was about to snag an interception.
Right tackle Dylan Wonnum missed the game with his left foot in a boot. He suffered an ankle injury at Missouri and will be out 3-4 weeks.
Freshman Jaylen Nichols took his place.
Kentucky had the ball to start the second half, trailing 10-0. On third down, USC defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson sent the house, and D.J. Wonnum sacked Smith.
The ball bounced loose, was recovered by Aaron Sterling, and the Gamecocks went to their best playmaker of the night.
Dowdle took the handoff, cut left, cut left again and found the sideline. His 30-yard gallop beat the safety to the pylon by a half-step.
The Gamecocks are off this week. They will return to the field on Oct. 12 at No. 3 Georgia.