Marquavius Lewis, and the rest of South Carolina’s football team, is going to a bowl game.
“As a football coach, you remember certain moments and one of those moments for me was earlier this season when we were struggling, and Qua Lewis and I were just talking, and he goes, ‘Coach, I just want to go to a bowl game. I’ve never been to a bowl game,’ ” Gamecocks first-year coach Will Muschamp said. “When you’re able to fulfill something like that for a guy like that who has given everything to South Carolina and loves this place, loves being a Gamecock, that’s really important. To see the look on his face – a lot of those guys’ face, especially the seniors, almost a bit of relief and a sense of pride.”
Lewis, a senior defensive end from Greenwood, and the rest of the Gamecocks beat Western Carolina 44-31 in front of 76,650 fans on Senior Day in Williams-Brice Stadium. The win improved South Carolina to 6-5 overall, doubling last year’s win total and giving it the requisite number to be eligible for postseason play.
“It’s big for the program,” senior linebacker T.J. Holloman said. “We are the building blocks for Coach Muschamp and the new staff. It can only go up from here. That’s been our mentality.”
The Gamecocks missed a bowl game for the first time in eight years last year because of their 3-9 record. It looked like they might miss one again this year when they finished the first half of the season 2-4, but they have won four of their past five since a midseason bye week.
“I am extremely proud of our football team and how they have continued to have some fight and resolve,” Muschamp said. “That says a lot about the character we have in the locker room and it says a lot about our staff.”
South Carolina powered past the Southern Conference Catamounts (2-9) on the strength of a season-high 422 rushing yards. It was the team’s highest rushing total since gaining 424 yards on the ground against Cincinnati in 1980.
“Their football team has struggled against the run so that has a little to do with it as well, but we did a nice job of getting a hat on a hat,” Muschamp said.
Freshman running back Rico Dowdle has a career-high 226 rushing yards, the most by a Gamecock since Marcus Lattimore had 246 against Navy in 2011.
“That’s a heck of a day, and you love that as an offensive lineman,” South Carolina’s offensive lineman Mason Zandi said. “That was kind of our game plan coming in. We could see some weaknesses in their defense and just decided to absolutely run the ball.”
South Carolina gained a season-high 588 yards, but couldn’t close out the game until the fourth quarter because the Catamounts gained 367 yards and became the first team this season to score more than 30 points against South Carolina. Running back Detrez Newsome had 115 rushing yards and 240 kickoff return yards, including a 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
“I challenged these guys that we’re going to a heavyweight match, and it isn’t the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog,” Western Carolina coach Mark Speir said. “We were going to punch and stand head-to- head with an SEC school trying to get bowl eligible. Our players fought their guts out.”
With Western Carolina trailing 28-17 in the second quarter, Catamounts wide receiver Spearman Robinson had a 57-yard gain that put WCU at South Carolina’s 1-yard line, but the Gamecocks defense held on four straight plays from the 1, giving the ball back to the offense at the 2-yard line. The Gamecocks then went 98 yards in 10 plays to go ahead 35-17 with 14 seconds left in the first half. It was tied for the longest drive of the season.
Star of the game: Freshman running back Rico Dowdle had 226 yards on 21 carries and added two rushing touchdowns. Dowdle bounced back from an 18-yard performance last week against Florida. He has averaged 130 yards per game in the last four games. “Rico, the more snaps he takes, the better he’s going to get,” Muschamp said. “He’s a good football player. He runs through contact.”
Play of the game: Tight end Hayden Hurst completed his second pass of the season in the second quarter, when he caught a long lateral from quarterback Jake Bentley and threw back across the field to Bentley for a 12-yard gain. Hurst is 2-for-2 passing for 21 yards this season. “When (offensive coordinator Kurt Roper) calls it in a game, it’s fun,” Hurst said. “I just wanted to give Jake a chance to catch it and didn’t want to get him lit up over there.” Hurst is one of five Gamecocks to complete a pass this season (Bentley, quarterbacks Brandon McIlwain and Perry Orth and punter Sean Kelly are the others).
Stat of the game: Western Carolina’s Detrez Newsome and South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel combined for 434 kickoff return yards, and both had a kickoff return for a touchdown. Samuel, who had a 100-yard score, had five returns for 194 yards. Newsome, who had a 93-yard score, had seven returns for 240 yards. “We have to get better with team speed as far as our special teams, and we have to look at some alternative kick situations because the team we are playing this week has some good skill kids,” Muschamp said.
Free concert: The victory kicked in country music singer Darius Rucker’s guarantee that he would hold a free concert on USC’s campus if the Gamecocks won six games this season. “We are excited about that,” Muschamp said. School president Harris “Pastides is going to be the emcee so he’s cranking that thing up. I put him in charge tonight. Well, he put himself in charge tonight.” Rucker confirmed the appointment Saturday night on his Twitter account, posting: “Gonna be in the spring but will be free show for the university!! Exited and happy.”
Senior Day: South Carolina honored 21 seniors before the game and then let senior quarterback Perry Orth finish the game. “To get a bowl game, especially on Senior Night, just signifies how much this team fights,” senior offensive lineman Mason Zandi said.
Third down dominance: The Gamecocks were 10-of- 15 on third down. The Catamounts were 4-of-7 on third down in the first half but converted just one third down in the second half.
Who: South Carolina at Clemson
When: Saturday, Nov. 26, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Memorial Stadium, Clemson
HOW THEY SCORED
USC: Dowdle 43 run (Fry kick), 13:10
USC: Dowdle 1 run (Fry kick), 10:12
WC: Newsome 39 run (Howard kick), 8:01
USC: Samuel 100 kickoff return (Fry kick), 7:48
WC: C.Young 16 run (Howard kick), 4:08
WC: FG Howard 32, 11:18
USC: Samuel 2 run (Fry kick), 6:07
USC: Samuel 2 run (Fry kick), 6:07
USC: FG Fry 32, 7:35
WC: C.Young 4 run (Newsome run), 4:52
USC: FG Fry 24, 9:28
WC: Newsome 93 kickoff return (pass failed), 9:13
USC: FG Fry 32, 7:35
Time of Possession
RUSHING: W. Carolina, Newsome 21-115, Adams 13-93, C.Young 9-28. South Carolina, Dowdle 21-226, Turner 17-97, Bentley 5-34, Samuel 5-27, Paulk 3-24, Da.Williams 4-9, Talley 1-5.
PASSING: W. Carolina, Adams 7-18-0-131. South Carolina, Hurst 1-1-0-12, Bentley 14-23-0-154.
RECEIVING” W. Carolina, S.Robinson 4-105, Newsome 1-10, T.Robinson 1-9, A.Payne 1-7. South Carolina, B.Edwards 4-61, Samuel 4-56, Dowdle 2-13, Hurst 1-15, Da.Williams 1-12, Bentley 1-12, Crosby 1-(minus 1), Turner 1-(minus 2).