South Carolina rolls over Missouri 31-10 to improve to 4-0

South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore dives through a hole in the Missouri defensive line to score a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game, at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, S.C., Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012. (AP Photo/Brett Flashnick)

COLUMBIA -- South Carolina continues to have a leg up on the Southeastern Conference’s East Division.

The seventh-ranked Gamecocks beat Missouri 31-10 on Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium, thanks to a fast start provided by special teams and defense. South Carolina (4-0, 2-0) has now won both of its games against divisional opponents, including its season opener at Vanderbilt.

South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw completed 20 of 21 passes for 249 yards and two touchdowns. He completed his final 20 passes, tied for second-most in SEC history.

The NCAA record for consecutive completions is 26, set by East Carolina’s Dominique Davis in 2011. The previous record was 23, set by Tennessee’s Tee Martin in 1998 and tied by California’s Aaron Rodgers in 2004.

Missouri (2-2, 0-2) will try to win its first SEC game, in its inaugural season in the league, in two weeks at home against Vanderbilt. The Tigers travel to Central Florida next week.

The Gamecocks led 21-3 at halftime after out-gaining the Tigers 231-131. South Carolina’s three first half touchdown drives required two plays, four yards and 38 seconds; two plays, 37 yards and 32 seconds; and four plays, 50 yards and 56 seconds. South Carolina’s longest drive actually didn’t result in a touchdown. The Gamecocks drove from their 20-yard line to the Missouri 1, but couldn’t punch the ball in on two runs from there, and turned it over on downs.

South Carolina didn’t need to move nearly as far on its next drive. Ace Sanders returned a punt 49 yards to Missouri’s 4, and the Gamecocks needed just two plays to go up 7-0 with 11:08 left in the first half. Tailback Marcus Lattimore did the honors, with a two-yard score that gave him 32 career rushing touchdowns – a new school record.

Missouri countered with just two plays before a fumble, forced by linebacker Reginald Bowens, gave South Carolina possession at Missouri’s 37. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, who calls the plays, took a deep shot on the next play and caught the Tigers on their heels, as receiver Nick Jones hauled in a 36-yard pass. Lattimore ran for a touchdown on the play after that, and the Gamecocks led 14-0 with 10:14 left.

Special teams contributed again later in the half, as Bruce Ellington returned a Missouri kickoff from a couple yards deep in the end zone and brought it to midfield with 1:20 left in the half. Four plays later, Shaw hit receiver Ace Sanders for a 23-yard touchdown pass with 24 seconds left, after Sanders beat cornerback E.J. Gaines’ press coverage.

After throwing an incomplete pass on his first attempt, Shaw closed the half by completing 14 straight passes. He finished the half with 170 passing yards and showed no ill effects of the crack in his right (throwing) shoulder blade. In last week’s win over Alabama-Birmingham, he was hit and landed on the shoulder late in the first half and did not return. Spurrier said Tuesday that Shaw would start against Missouri.

The Gamecocks were playing with true freshman free safety T.J. Gurley in place of senior third-year starter D.J. Swearinger, who was suspended by the Southeastern Conference for the game because of a helmet-to-helmet hit against UAB. Some in the sold-out crowd wore garnet T-shirts emblazoned with “Free Jungle Boi” (a reference to Swearinger’s nickname) and the image of a helmet with dreadlocks dangling from it – Swearinger’s recognizable profile on the field. The shirts popped up around Columbia late in the week. When the Gamecocks ran out of the tunnel, Swearinger led them onto the field, wearing his jersey and black shorts.

Despite Missouri using the fastest-pace offense the Gamecocks have ever played, defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said he wasn’t concerned about how Gurley would fare.

Another starting lineup change came on the offensive line. South Carolina line coach Shawn Elliott was so displeased with his unit’s play against UAB that he said changes were likely. They came Saturday in the form of Corey Robinson starting at left tackle (South Carolina’s third different starter at that spot this year) and Mike Matulis moving from left tackle to right tackle, replacing Cody Gibson.

Robinson, a sophomore who started for the first time Saturday, had impressed Elliott with his recent performances. Matulis started the first game at right tackle, opposite Brandon Shell, and started the next two at left tackle, when Shell was demoted to No. 2 right tackle. Gibson did not start the first game, but had started the previous two at right tackle.

Now, the Gamecocks almost certainly will be 5-0 and 3-0 in the SEC heading into the enormous Oct. 6 home game against Georgia, which many observers believe could be the de facto East championship game. The Bulldogs won the East last season.

USC’s only game between Missouri and Georgia is next Saturday’s 7 p.m. trip to hapless Kentucky, the perennial cellar-dweller in the East.

The Georgia game begins a challenging stretch for the Gamecocks, including a trip to LSU on Oct. 13 and a trip to Florida on Oct. 20, before the Oct. 27 home game against Tennessee.

NOTES: Lattimore surpassed the USC career rushing touchdowns record shared by Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers (1977-80) and Harold Green (1986-89). Saturday was just Lattimore’s 24th career game. … Ellington’s kickoff return was South Carolina’s first kickoff return of the season. In the first three games, all nine of South Carolina’s opponents’ kickoffs went for touchbacks. … Next Saturday at Kentucky, South Carolina will try to win its ninth straight game. The school’s longest winning streak is nine games to start the 1984 season. … South Carolina has won 10 straight games against SEC East opponents, dating to a loss at Kentucky in 2010.