OXFORD, Miss. | Chris Smelley threw three touchdown passes, South Carolina's No. 1 defense held Mississippi to a field goal in the second half and the Gamecocks beat the Rebels 31-24 on Saturday.
Given the starting job over backup Stephen Garcia on Thursday, Smelley completed 22 of 31 passes for a career-high 327 yards and led an 11-play, 95-yard drive midway through the fourth quarter to put away Ole Miss, which stumbled a week after knocking off then-No. 4 Florida.
The Rebels (3-3, 1-2 Southeastern Conference) appeared to take control early, but a pair of fumbles helped the Gamecocks (4-2, 1-2) earn a critical win that kept them from exiting the SEC East race in early October.
Smelley, pulled early rom the UAB game last week by coach Steve Spurrier in favor of Garcia, made several strong throws in the game and only one big mistake, a third-quarter interception that didn't hurt South Carolina.
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After Smelley hit Jason Barnes with a touchdown pass on third-and-goal from the 20 early in the second quarter, Gamecocks defensive lineman Nathan Peppers scooped up Jevan Snead's fumble and returned it 29 yards for a 14-point swing in exactly a minute that gave South Carolina a 17-14 lead.
Ole Miss answered to take a 21-14 halftime lead on a 24-yard pass from Snead to Brandon Bolden, but another fumble in the second half turned the game for the Gamecocks.
Chris Culliver forced Dexter McCluster to fumble at the South Carolina 6 midway through the third quarter. Emmanuel Cook returned the fumble to the 42. It was McCluster's second critical fumble near the opponent's goal line in the last three games. A similar play at the 1 helped Vanderbilt beat Ole Miss two weeks ago.
Smelley was especially sharp on the ensuing drive, converting a pair of first downs with quarterback sneaks, including fourth-and-inches at the Ole Miss 10. That set up the second of his two touchdown passes to Barnes, a 6-yarder that put the Gamecocks up 24-21.
After Ole Miss downed the ball at the 5 following a punt on the ensuing drive, Smelley and tailback Mike Davis marched South Carolina down the field. Davis rushed for 28 yards on the drive and Smelley hit 5 of 6 passes for 54 yards, including a 4-yard touchdown pass to Joe Hills.
The Gamecocks were the nation's top defense entering the game, allowing 105 yards passing and 221 total yards per game coming in. But the Rebels surpassed both marks by halftime. Snead completed 12 of 15 passes for 154 yards by the break and the team added another 78 yards rushing, including 29 yards and a 5-yard touchdown by McCluster out of the Wild Rebel formation.
In the second half, however, a Gamecocks defense led by Cook's 14 tackles held the Rebels to 129 yards and a field goal.
Fittingly, South Carolina finished off the Rebels with Carlos Thomas' drive-ending interception in the final minute.