Rough road trip: South Carolina defense hobbled as Arkansas wins SEC opener

Michael Woods/AP

There was a recurring image Saturday afternoon — one that brought no joy to the South Carolina sideline. Seemingly every few minutes, a Gamecocks defender found himself down on the grass, circled by athletic trainers and coaches, grimacing in pain.

Head coach Shane Beamer and the Gamecocks already knew they’d be short-handed defensively at No. 16 Arkansas. But in Saturday’s Southeastern Conference opener, Razorback Stadium felt more like a battlefield than a football field.

Led by quarterback K.J. Jefferson and tailback Raheim “Rocket” Sanders, the electric Hogs (2-0, 1-0 SEC) torched USC’s (1-1, 0-1) banged-up defense, putting up 300 yards on the ground en route to a 44-30 win.

The Gamecocks came into the game without veteran defensive back R.J. Roderick — who injured his right arm in Week 1’s win over Georgia State. Fellow defensive back David Spaulding also didn’t travel due to an unspecified injury. Both losses were significant, but they’d only continue to mount throughout the game.

At various points of the contest, USC defensive lineman Alex Huntley and Jordan Strachan, linebacker Mo Kaba and defensive backs Darius Rush and Cam Smith all suffered injuries. Smith — one of USC’s top NFL prospects — struggled to walk to the locker room with a towel over his head just before halftime, according to the ESPN broadcast.

Led by the explosive tailback Sanders and a stout offensive line, Arkansas gashed USC on the ground from the very beginning, and USC’s defensive injuries only opened more holes. Sanders ran for 156 yards and two touchdowns on 24 attempts, while Jefferson added 67 yards on 19 carries and a rushing touchdown as part of a vicious running attack. The quarterback added 182 passing yards and a touchdown throw on 18-of-21 passing.

Even with a hobbled defense and a near-unstoppable Arkansas running attack, the Gamecocks had moments where they seemed on the verge of a comeback.

In one of Arkansas’ few mistakes, receiver Matt Landers dropped a wide-open deep shot in the first drive of the second half, forcing the Hogs to punt and giving quarterback Spencer Rattler and the USC offense a sliver of momentum.

Rattler took advantage, finding transfer wide receiver Antwane Wells in space, who then used his speed to race for a 62-yard touchdown. With the touchdown, USC trailed by just five points. On the very next drive, defensive lineman Tonka Hemingway forced a stop on 4th and 2 at USC’s 18-yard-line, giving the Gamecocks a prime opportunity to take a late lead.

But USC couldn’t find the right formula on the offensive end, going 3-and-out on the subsequent drive as the Razorbacks wrestled back control of the game. A fourth-quarter fumble by running back MarShawn Lloyd on a short pass and in interception by Rattler in the end zone helped fuel the Arkansas attack.

Rattler finished the game with 361 passing yards and one touchdown, completing 60% of his passes (23-for-38) in an uneven effort. The emergence of Wells at receiver was one of the few offensive bright spots for USC. The junior transfer from James Madison made eight catches for a game-high 185 receiving yards.

Much like Week 1, USC’s offensive line struggled to open running lanes with USC rushing for just 54 yards on 27 carries. Rattler was sacked three times behind that line.

Next USC football game

Who: USC vs. Georgia

When: Noon Saturday, Sept. 17

Where: Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia

Watch: ESPN