COLUMBIA, S.C. — Arkansas carried confidence into Saturday’s game at South Carolina thanks to its history of success against the Gamecocks.
South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw, defensive back D.J. Swearinger and the rest of the Gamecocks made sure it didn’t amount to much in Williams-Brice Stadium.
Arkansas’ dominance over South Carolina came to an abrupt end — like many other things in its disappointing season — during a 38-20 loss in front of an announced crowd of 78,722. Shaw led the Gamecocks to three touchdowns in the first half and an 11-point halftime lead, then watched Swearinger turn the game into a rout early in the third quarter with 69-yard interception return for a touchdown.
It led to South Carolina’s first win against the Razorbacks since 2008.
“I think the last time we beat them (George W.) Bush was the president,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. “It was four years ago, I know that. It’s been a long time. They are not quite the team they have been in the past.
“They obviously have some issues, but it’s still good to beat them.”
It also put the Razorbacks’ hopes of extending the season on dangerously thin ice.
Arkansas (4-6, 2-4 Southeastern Conference) now must defeated Top-25 teams Mississippi State and LSU in its final two games to reach the six-win mark required for bowl eligibility. If not, the Razorbacks will fail to reach the postseason for the first time since that 2008 season.
“We made a lot of mistakes,” Arkansas coach John L. Smith said. “The first half we had a chance, we just stubbed our toe, made mistakes. … It was a game of mistakes.”
The common culprits cost the Razorbacks once again Saturday.
Arkansas’ defense, which started four freshmen (linebackers Otha Peters and A.J. Turner, cornerback Will Hines and safety Rohan Gaines), surrendered 279 passing yards and two touchdowns. South Carolina finished with 383 total yards, but turned in several big plays that led to three touchdowns in the first half.
“We stopped the run, which was one thing we talked about doing,” Arkansas defensive coordinator Paul Haynes said. “But too many big plays in the first half that we gave up that we shouldn’t have. I give them credit. But we kind of bit ourselves in the foot in the first half to give them some plays.”
The Arkansas offense, meanwhile, committed three turnovers, a handful of costly penalties and lamented lost opportunities in the red zone.
Running back Dennis Johnson — who finished with 41 rushing yards after back-to-back 100-yard performances — fumbled inside the South Carolina 5 with Arkansas trailing 7-0 early in the second quarter to end one threat.
The Razorbacks couldn’t punch the ball in from inside the 5-yard line once again a little later, settling for a 20-yard field goal from place kicker Zack Hocker to cut the deficit to 14-10.
“We’ve moved the ball all year,” Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson said about the red zone woes. “It’s so frustrating. We’ve got to get points. We feel like we can move it against anybody. It’s not the issue. It’s putting it in the end zone.”
South Carolina (8-2, 6-2) had no trouble despite playing its first game without injured running back Marcus Lattimore. Shaw led the way, completing 9 of 15 passes for 192 yards in the half. He also accounted for all three touchdowns in the first half, throwing for two and adding a 10-yard touchdown run.
Shaw’s 42-yard touchdown pass to receiver Bruce Ellington on a fourth-and-5 play late in the half was a back-breaker for the Razorbacks. A mistake by Gaines left Ellington wide open to give the Gamecocks a 21-10 lead with 1:30 remaining.
“We were in an all-out blitz and our safety has to get over the top,” Haynes said. “He read it the wrong way … That’s a young kid making a mistake. But that one right there, I put a little bit on myself. We were reeling a little bit. Should’ve gone zone.”
Said Arkansas defensive end Chris Smith, “I think that was the changing point of the game. It hurt a lot.”
South Carolina pushed the lead to 24-10 with a field goal on its opening possession in the third quarter. Then Swearinger broke the game open with his big play.
Arkansas was on the move thanks to a pair of 15-yard penalties on the veteran defensive back during the key drive. Swearinger was flagged for a horse collar tackle on freshman running back Nate Holmes, who earned his first carries Saturday, to start the possession. Then Swearinger was flagged for a personal foul penalty after a big collision with Arkansas receiver Javontee Herndon.
South Carolina didn’t like the call, but it didn’t matter. Swearinger intercepted Wilson’s next pass and outran the Razorbacks to the end zone for a 69-yard score.
“I’ve always played since I was little to be game-changer, and I think that was a game-changing moment,” Swearinger said. “Not only to intercept the ball, but to put six points on the board for us. I think it really did do something to Arkansas.”
Swearinger earned one more penalty — for good measure — by tossing the football into the stands after crossing the goal line. The safety said he was releasing a little frustration from the two penalties. Spurrier wasn’t happy about it, but couldn’t get too upset about the toss because the Gamecocks had taken a 31-10 lead.
“We got up 21,” Spurrier said. “That sort of deflated Arkansas, it seemed like.”
Arkansas fell behind even further at 38-10 before Wilson led the Razorbacks on one final touchdown drive late in the game. Arkansas had 360 yards, but managed just 139 in the second half against a South Carolina defense ranked 12th in the nation.
“Early in the game we drove the ball well enough to have the lead,” Arkansas offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said. “We didn’t capitalize on it and get it done. That’s how you end up not winning. It’s too bad we didn’t get it done.”
Wilson finished 26-of-41 passing for 277 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. He set the school’s career completions record Saturday, passing former Razorback Clint Stoerner. Wilson also helped receiver Cobi Hamilton (four catches for 72 yards) pass former Razorback Jarius Wright for the school’s single-season receiving yards mark Saturday.
But the records came in another loss. This one snapped Arkansas’ eight-game win streak against SEC East opponents, which had dated back to the 2010 season.
More important, it put Arkansas’ season in danger of ending in two weeks.
“We get to go to Mississippi State next week and then the following week we’ve got LSU at home,” Wilson said when asked about Arkansas’ motivation now. “They’re big games. … Why not go down there and give them our best shot?”