The South Carolina Gamecocks — missing their starting quarterback, running back, a cornerback, and their best defensive lineman — defied all expectations and turned in an incredible performance to cap coach Shane Beamer’s first year, defeating North Carolina 38-21 in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl on Thursday.
The Tar Heels got moving quickly on their first possession, reaching midfield after just two plays, but Jabari Ellis sacked UNC quarterback Sam Howell on third down to force the Tar Heels to punt. The Gamecocks then drew first blood on their drive, powered by Jaheim Bell and Kevin Harris carries and capped by a 69-yard touchdown bomb from Dakereon Joyner to Bell to put USC up 7-0 early in the first quarter.
North Carolina came up empty again on its next possession when a lunge from receiver Antoine Green for a first down was ruled to be short of the marker, and the Tar Heels opted to punt — a curious decision, given the fourth and short and where they were on the field. South Carolina went right back to work, alternating Joyner and Zeb Noland at quarterback, and Noland fired another scoring strike to Bell, this one a 66-yarder. The Gamecocks further added insult to injury when the swinging gate formation caught the Tar Heels off guard and allowed holder Kai Kroeger to connect with tight end Nick Muse for a successful two-point conversion that pushed USC’s advantage to 15-0.
The Tar Heels lacked an answer on their next drive, as running back British Brooks was tackled for loss on first down and Howell took another sack from Alex Huntley that ended the possession. Joyner and Noland teamed up for another promising possession, but the Gamecocks stalled in the red zone, bringing up a 30-yard field goal attempt for Parker White — which he drilled to put the Gamecocks up 18-0 and become the all-time leading scorer in program history.
UNC opened the first quarter with a fourth-and-short conversion in its own territory, and Brooks took off for 63 yards on a delayed draw to put the Tar Heels on the board, 18-7. The Gamecocks couldn’t muster a response despite a clutch Xavier Legette catch on third down, ultimately taking a drive-killing sack to punt the ball away for the first time. Howell immediately started firing, carving up the depleted Gamecock secondary to get into USC territory, but South Carolina got to him a couple times — courtesy of Zacch Pickens — and forced a field goal to make the score 18-10.
The Gamecocks finally got the answer they wanted on their next possession, when running back Juju McDowell took a handoff around the left side and scooted 35 yards into the end zone, making it 25-10 South Carolina just before the half. UNC wasn’t done, though, running an effective two-minute drill to make it back to the red zone — but USC stopped them on third-and-short and drew a false start penalty on fourth-and-short to force a field goal, making it 25-13 as the second quarter came to a close.
South Carolina came out swinging to start the second half, with Ahmerean Brown grabbing with two huge catches from Joyner to power the Gamecocks to the 5-yard line and set up a Kevin Harris rushing score that made it 32-13. The Tar Heels struck back, through, when Howell lofted a 37-yard touchdown to Garrett Walston off a flea flicker and added a two-point conversion, pulling the Tar Heels within a couple scores, 32-21.
USC again had an answer, responding with a drive directed masterfully by Joyner that culminated in a 22-yard field goal to make it 35-21 halfway through the fourth quarter. After the defense forced another key UNC punt, Harris put the team on his back to help run out the clock on the victory, with one last White field goal to punctuate it.
Joyner was a perfect 9-of-9 passing for 160 yards and a touchdown, while also adding 64 yards on the ground on 10 carries. Harris, in perhaps his final game in Garnet and Black, posted 182 yards on 31 carries and a score; Bell, the clear standout in the first half, logged 159 yards on five catches for two touchdowns.
The Gamecocks finish 2021 with seven wins, their first bowl victory since 2018 (technically the 2017 season), and will carry an avalanche of momentum with them into next season after getting some big recruiting and transfer wins as well. The future is looking bright.