COLUMBIA, Mo. — At some point, opponents are going to stop kicking to South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel. Until then, the Gamecocks will gladly take all the game-changing returns they can get from the all-purpose star.
For the second straight week, Samuel returned a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown, helping South Carolina erase an early deficit and beat Missouri 31-13 on Saturday night in the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams.
“The kickoff return, again, was huge for us,” South Carolina coach Will Muschamp said. “A huge momentum swing in the game.”
Missouri (1-1, 0-1) took a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter when Drew Lock connected with tight end Jason Reese on a 61-yard touchdown pass. Missouri coach Barry Odom thought Tucker McCann, who usually is capable of knocking kickoffs well into the end zone, would deliver his third touchback of the night. Instead, the ball landed in Samuel’s hands on the 3-yard line.
He needed to break only one tackle and dodge McCann on his way to a touchdown.
“I’ve been telling Coach, ‘Whenever you give me the ball, I’ll try to put it in the end zone,’ “ Samuel said.
He wasn’t done. South Carolina’s Jamyest Williams intercepted a pass on Missouri’s next play from scrimmage, giving the Gamecocks (2-0, 1-0) the ball on Missouri’s 25-yard line. On first down, Samuel, a junior wide receiver, took a handoff on a jet sweep and sprinted into the end zone for his second score in 15 seconds.
“No. 1 is a special guy when he gets the ball in his hands,” South Carolina wide receiver Bryan Edwards said.
Last week, Samuel returned the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown in a 35-28 victory over North Carolina State and also grabbed a 39-yard touchdown reception.
“He just picks us up,” South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley said of Samuel. “When we’re struggling on offence, we have a slow start, need a spark for our team, he’s that guy.”
Against the Tigers, his scoring outburst changed the direction of the game for good. South Carolina expanded its 14-10 halftime lead with a dominant second half.
“Our margin of error is absolutely zero,” Missouri coach Barry Odom said. “If we don’t win the turnover margin and we play horrific on special teams, we won’t have a chance.”
Bentley completed 18 of 28 passes for 187 yards and one touchdown. Samuel had five catches for 45 yards. Tight end Hayden Hurst also had a productive night, catching a 39-yard touchdown pass and rushing for a 2-yard touchdown. Ty’Son Williams led the way on the ground, rushing 14 times for 78 yards.
The Gamecocks held Missouri’s offence in check one week after the Tigers broke multiple school records in a 72-43 victory over FCS opponent Missouri State.
Lock completed 14 of 32 passes for 245 yards, with two interceptions. The Tigers rushed 37 times for 178 yards, but their drives stalled in the red zone. They settled for two McCann field goals, and a third attempt was blocked by Javon Kinlaw.
The Missouri wide receiver tandem of J’Mon Moore and Johnathon Johnson, who each surpassed 100 yards receiving last week, had minimal impact. Moore had three catches for 29 yards and dropped two passes. Johnson had no receptions — he dropped a pass in the end zone late in the fourth quarter — and muffed his only punt-return attempt.
The Gamecocks, who won only one road game last year in compiling a 6-7 record, have now won two games away from home this season. South Carolina’s next two games are at home.
“Really proud of our guys,” Muschamp said. “We didn’t play particularly well on the road last year. That’s something we really emphasized going into this year and understanding that we’ve gotta win some games on the road to accomplish what you want to accomplish.”
South Carolina: For the second straight week, the Gamecocks won a game in which they were outgained from scrimmage. Missouri outgained South Carolina 423-359, but the Gamecocks were plus-three in turnovers and had Samuel’s big kickoff return.
Missouri: Running back Damarea Crockett was having a big night until he jogged off the field with an injury in the third quarter and did not return. Odom said Crockett has a bruised tailbone but should be available next week. He finished with 18 carries for 97 yards.
SURPRISE RUNNER: Hurst surprised Missouri’s defence, and maybe himself, when he took a handoff on a sweep and shrugged off a tackle on his way to a 2-yard touchdown run.
“That’s probably the first time I’ve run a football since Pop Warner, so I was licking my chops a little bit,” said Hurst, a 6-foot-5, 250-pound tight end.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks will face another SEC East opponent when Kentucky visits on Saturday.
Missouri: The Tigers face Purdue at home Saturday. Odom said Crockett suffered a bruised tailbone and should be available.