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South Carolina scores 23 unanswered to top Michigan in Outback Bowl

By Joey Knight, Times Staff Writer
Published: January 1, 2018 Updated: January 1, 2018 at 05:32 PM
South Carolina Gamecocks wide receiver Shi Smith (13) runs the ball for a touchdown during the second half in the Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida on Monday, January 1, 2018. The South Carolina Gamecocks defeated the Michigan Wolverines 26 to 19. (Octavio Jones, Times)

TAMPA — At one point, the 32nd Outback Bowl seemed destined to feature more TV timeouts than first downs.

On a chilly, overcast afternoon, Michigan and South Carolina were waging a defensive grudge match that likely had old-schoolers binging on nostalgia and millennials binge-watching Netflix. At halftime, the teams had combined for only 186 first-half yards and two third-down conversions in 17 tries.

Then, almost without warning, South Carolina’s offense entered the year 2018.

Before an announced Raymond James Stadium audience of 45,867, a game of three-and-outs evolved into ebbs and flows. Trailing by 16 in the second half, South Carolina (9-4) rallied for 23 unanswered points en route to a 26-19 triumph.

"We don’t have all the trophies and the tradition and the history, but we’ve got some grit," said second-year Gamecocks coach (and former Gators coach) Will Muschamp, whose team is 10-3 in one-score games on his watch.

"Our players understand how to win close ball games."

Sparked initially by their defense, the Gamecocks forced Michigan to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns. Michigan (8-5) got four of them from sophomore Quinn Nordin, but committed five second-half turnovers, two inside the USC 5-yard line.

The Gamecocks converted two of them into points.

"They got better as the game went on, no doubt, and made plays to win the football game," said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, whose team -— 11th in the Associated Press preseason poll — dropped its last three games.

"We didn’t get the knockout punch when we needed it. Didn’t take advantage of the opportunities that were there."

In a de facto interview for interim offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon, South Carolina finished with 300 total yards after managing only 89 in the first half. Quarterback Jake Bentley (19-of-32, 239 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) was named bowl MVP.

"I thought Bryan McClendon did an outstanding job preparing our football team offensively and the entire offensive staff going into this game," Muschamp said.

Facing the nation’s third-ranked defense (268.6 ypg), the Gamecocks didn’t reach the red zone until the final three minutes of the third period, when they capped a 77-yard drive on Rico Dowdle’s 17-yard touchdown sweep, cutting their deficit to 19-9.

They added touchdowns on each of their next two drives. The second score, following a fumble by Wolverines quarterback Brandon Peters, came on Bentley’s 21-yard pass to Bryan Edwards on a simple post route.

They took their first lead, 23-19, when receiver Shi Smith got behind his coverage and hauled in a deep Bentley throw for 53-yard touchdown with 11:33 remaining.

"(McClendon) told us we were gonna be aggressive and challenge these guys, and that’s what we went out and did," Bentley said.

"The guys made plays, and. … everyone had complete confidence in him. I think it showed through bowl practice. I think we scored more touchdowns on our defense in bowl practice than we did all season."

Peters, who like McClendon also was participating in a de facto interview for a full-time job in 2018, finished 20-of-44 for 186 yards and two picks. He went 4-of-4 for 54 yards on UM’s only touchdown drive, giving it a 16-3 lead early in the third, but six of his team’s final eight drives netted 11 or fewer yards.

Three of those drives ended with turnovers.

"We kinda let ’em hang around," Harbaugh said, "and they took advantage of it."

Contact Joey Knight at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.