Rico Dowdle remembered who he was just in the nick of time.
South Carolina’s freshman tailback had been stonewalled through three quarters of Saturday’s 31-21 win over Missouri. Run-blocking, or being indecisive with the ball, limited the Gamecocks to 99 yards through three quarters. It was head-scratching – USC committed to the run against Tennessee, one of the worst run defenses in the SEC, so it did the same against league-worst Missouri.
Yet the Tigers were prepared. A unit that was giving up 240 yards a game played like they were calling the Gamecocks’ offense.
“I felt like we weren’t hitting the hole. I felt like there were some things there,” said coach Will Muschamp, speaking for Dowdle as per his no-freshman-speak policy. “What you got to be careful with, especially a young back, is always trying to make the big run. Four yards is good.”
When Dowdle remembered that – and Missouri’s defense was starting to tire – he re-buckled his chinstrap and won the game.
His first touch of the fourth quarter was a 23-yard gain. His second was 11, his third 14. There was no reason to stop what was working, so Muschamp and Kurt Roper gave Dowdle a slight breather while running quarterback Jake Bentley and tailback David Williams, then handed it to Dowdle three more times.
He couldn’t crack the end zone, but got Elliott Fry in position for a field goal and a 10-point lead. Dowdle wound up with 149 yards on 27 carries with a touchdown, and three catches for 20 yards and another score.
Four yards can be enough sometimes.
“You’re not going to make a big run every time, against the folks we’re playing against,” Muschamp said. “And it wasn’t all Rico, I’m not saying that. But there were some times I didn’t feel like we didn’t hit the hole as quickly as we could have.”
Dowdle stumbled on his first carry and he and Bentley got confused on handoff for his second. Sometimes he was caught in the backfield immediately after the exchange – the Gamecocks’ line was deplorable in the first half – and sometimes he was taking himself out of runs.
But he’s a freshman. It’s easy to forget that. But Muschamp wasn’t going to quit riding his most durable stallion.
“Those defensive kids get tired of hitting it, at the end of the day,” he said. “That first one’s OK, that second one, ‘shoulder’s hurting a little bit,’ that third one’s, ‘I thought the five-technique should have made that play. I’m doing my job.’ I’ve coached defense my whole life, I’ve seen it, first-hand. And all the excuses that come with it.”
Excuses or not, Missouri was suddenly flailing at Dowdle as he spun, dipped, hurdled and broke tackles on his way to more grass. It’s no secret that Muschamp prefers to win games with a ground-and-pound approach.
When he has the hoss to do it, and the defense is susceptible, there’s no argument against it.
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