Another week, another Deebo Samuel kickoff return touchdown.
Last week, the South Carolina junior led off a tough win over North Carolina State by returning the opening kickoff for a touchdown. This Saturday, Samuel waited until his third opportunity—with his team down 10-0—to turn momentum with a kickoff returned for a score against Missouri in the first SEC game of the year.
The touchdown—the first of two on the day for Samuel—began a string of 21 unanswered points for the Gamecocks. They soon pulled away for a 31-13 road victory in Columbia, Missouri.
Considering their disastrous defensive showing last week, the Tigers (1-1, 0-1 SEC) could not have gotten off to a much better start to the game. South Carolina (2-0, 1-0) missed a field goal on its first drive, and Missouri made one on its initial possession for a 3-0 lead.
The Tigers carried that advantage into the second quarter and extended it with a 61-yard touchdown pass from Drew Lock to Jason Reese. It was the first real breakdown by the Gamecocks defense after being lulled to sleep by handoffs to Damarea Crockett.
Memorial Stadium was rocking, and then Samuel struck.
Lock followed with an ill-timed interception. Then Samuel rushed in from 25 yards out.
In the span of three plays, Missouri went from up 10-0 to down 14-10. The Tigers would never lead again.
Although, they came close to cutting into the lead before the break. Tucker McCann, who hit from 43 yards out earlier in the game, had his 25-yard attempt blocked with 1:12 to go in the first half.
With Samuel’s damage having been done, the onus turned to quarterback Jake Bentley and tight end Hayden Hurst in the second half. Bentley, who wound up 18-28 for 187 yards, tossed a 39-yard touchdown pass—his only TD toss of the game—to Hurst for a 21-10 lead.
McCann and South Carolina kicker Alexander Woznick then traded field goals. Another huge special teams play helped seal the win. Trailing 24-13, the Tigers were set to take over near midfield after a punt. Jonathan Johnson, though, fumbled the ball, and the Gamecocks recovered.
Seven plays and 44 yards later, Hurst rushed in (Yes, they handed it off to a tight end.) on third-and-goal for the game-sealing touchdown.
What We Learned About South Carolina
For South Carolina, it had to be nice to see Hurst deliver on the big stage after being virtually non-existent (one catch for -2 yards) in the season-opener. The 24-year-old finished with 69 yards receiving on three catches to go with his two touchdowns.
Samuel, though, remains the Gamecocks’ most important player on offense. He wasn’t heard from at all in the first quarter and his team put a zero up on the scoreboard—against a defense that allowed 43 points to Missouri State last week. But here’s the thing about the dynamic playmaker: He doesn’t need many touches to change a game.
Outside of his return touches, Samuel scored on his only carry of the game and pulled in five catches for 45 yards. Five touchdowns in two games are what tell Samuel’s story.
With Rico Dowdle bottled up, Ty’Son Williams became South Carolina’s most productive running back. The pair of sophomores each carried the ball 14 times, but Williams put up 78 yards to Dowdle’s 48.
The defense also did an outstanding job putting pressure on Lock. A week after the junior set school records in yards (521) and touchdowns (seven), the Gamecocks brought out the 2016 version of Lock that everybody knows and loathes.
Lock completed exactly half of his 32 passes. However, only 14 of the 16 “completions” went to his teammates, while one each went to South Carolina’s Jamyest Williams and Bryson Allen-Williams.
What We Learned About Missouri
Well, at least it wasn’t the defense’s fault, right? That’s about as positive a spin as one could put on this from the Tigers’ perspective.
After last week, the consensus on this team was simple: good offense, bad defense and mediocre special teams. The verdict on this week—after facing a legitimate FBS team: bad offense, bad defense and bad special teams.
The complete regression of Lock to his 2016 (you want to say “former” but that’s probably not the case) self was disappointing to see, especially after the unit seemed to get off to such a good start.
It would be obvious—but wrong—to call Samuel’s kickoff return touchdown the turning point of the game. What completely flipped the script was Lock’s ensuing interception. That moment showed not enough has changed between last year and this one for the should-be veteran.
Lock got plenty of help from his backfield mates, as Crockett (97 yards) and Ish Witter (72) put up over 150 total yards on the ground. His receivers admittedly let him down with some crucial drops—including J’Mon Moore, who seemed more interested in trash-talking, dropping two potential first-down passes.
Regardless the offense didn’t lose this game for Missouri. Neither did the defense, which performed much better than last week. The Tigers have a tragic inability to get off the field on third down that will continue to haunt them, but this game came down to special teams.
It’s Coach-Speak 101, but special teams changes games. South Carolina scored one touchdown directly from the unit, and another one indirectly following the Mizzou muffed punt. The Tigers also had a field goal blocked.
You factor in those differences, and you’re looking at a 17-16 score. Now, obviously, the Gamecocks missed a field goal, too. Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah. I get it. The point remains that the under-appreciated unit proved to be the difference.
Looking ahead, South Carolina continues its early SEC swing with its home opener against Kentucky (2-0). The Gamecocks would appear to have an incredibly favorable schedule moving forward with games against Louisiana Tech, Texas A&M, Arkansas, Tennessee and Vanderbilt on the docket following the Kentucky game.
Meanwhile, Missouri once again will go back to the drawing board with Purdue (1-1) next on the schedule. It will be the third of four straight home games to open the season. If the first two are any indication, it should be an ugly performance coming from the Tigers on Faurot Field. But with that fourth game coming against Auburn, they will take an ugly win—any win—at this point.