- Associated Press - Saturday, November 19, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Mason Zandi was grateful his South Carolina teammates dug when it would’ve been easy to give in. The result has the Gamecocks back in the postseason after missing out last season.

The Gamecocks (6-5) won for the fourth time in the past five games to become bowl eligible with a 44-31 victory over Western Carolina on Saturday night. Zandi always believed, even with his team at 2-4 and facing several big challenges, South Carolina would succeed.

“We came together as a team. Nobody points fingers at each other. Nobody says, ‘Oh, woe is me,’ ” Zandi, the left tackle, said. “I’m incredibly proud to play next to these people.”

And Zandi, a fifth-year senior, will have one additional game to savor.

Deebo Samuel scored three touchdowns, including a 100-yard kickoff return, while Rico Dowdle ran for 226 yards and two scores in South Carolina’s win.

Samuel, the sophomore receiver, made his mark in the running game with a pair of 2-yard TD runs and with his dazzling return on a first-quarter kickoff as the Gamecocks (6-5) doubled their win total from a year ago.

“This is a huge relief for us,” Zandi said. “It’s even bigger for the program moving forward.”

The Catamounts (2-9) of the FCS Southern Conference kept denting the Gamecocks defense and were within 41-31 after Detrez Newsome’s 93-yard kickoff return touchdown with 9:13 to go.

But South Carolina was able to hold on and avoid the embarrassment of a second straight FCS defeat after falling to Citadel 23-22 in their 3-9 season last fall.

“At the end of the day, we needed to get to a bowl game,” first-year South Carolina coach Will Muschamp said . “It was really important with where we were after our first games.”

Freshman tailback Dowdle had a 43-yard touchdown run on South Carolina’s opening series, then a 1-yard TD rush on the team’s next series. He has rushed for over 100 yards in three of the past four games.

Dowdle’s total yards were the most since Gamecocks great Marcus Lattimore gained 246 in a win over Navy in 2011.

A.J. Turner added 97 yards rushing for South Carolina, which ran for 422 yards, its highest total since gaining 352 yards rushing against Coastal Carolina in 2013.

Western Carolina fell to 0-52 against Football Bowl Subdivision teams and 0-19 all-time against Southeastern Conference opponents.

THE TAKEAWAY

Despite an early flourish, Western Carolina was overrun by its quicker, stronger FBS opponent. But the FCS school, which received $400,000 to come to South Carolina, has several FBS teams on upcoming schedules. Next year, the Catamounts play Hawaii and North Carolina. In 2018, it’s the Tar Heels again before facing North Carolina State in 2019.

South Carolina is still getting its feet wet under new coach Will Muschamp. Where more advanced SEC teams might’ve run from the Catamounts at the start, the young Gamecocks needed some time to get going before securing the win. That’s a big reason the coach wanted his team to qualify for the bowl - the extra weeks of prep, planning, film study and practice the postseason gives his building program.

FCS BACKER

Western Carolina coach Mark Speir said he hears all the time that SEC teams should not take on FCS teams like the Catamounts. “This was a great game,” said Speir, whose team scored more points on the Gamecocks than any other this season. “I think the fans had a great time. Thirty-three of our players got a scholarship to come to Western Carolina because South Carolina gave us the opportunity to come down here and play.”

SAMUEL’S SWEEP

Receiver Deebo Samuel has been an effective scorer for South Carolina near the goal line. He had two touchdowns near the goal line, running a patented jet-sweep play. “That jet sweep has been money for us,” Samuel said, smiling.

How long did it take Muschamp and the offensive staff to know Samuel could be effective in the red zone? “After about the third day of spring practice,” Muschamp said.

UP NEXT

Western Carolina’s season is finished.

South Carolina plays at Clemson on Saturday, trying to end a two-game losing streak to its rival.

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