FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas running back Alex Collins eyed the end zone in the fourth quarter Saturday, racing to the goal line in hopes of ending South Carolina’s dominant run of 45 unanswered points.
The freshman nearly got there, too, but was hit by a South Carolina defender as he tried to put the finishing touches on a 30-yard run. The ball slipped out of Collins’ hands and hit the pylon at the goal line. The play was ruled — and confirmed by replay — a fumble and touchback.
The sequence proved to be a perfect description of Arkansas’ 52-7 loss to No. 14 South Carolina in front of a Homecoming crowd of 66,302 in Razorback Stadium. Nothing went right for Arkansas during a disastrous day on its home turf.
South Carolina (5-1, 3-1 in SEC) dominated in every way en route to its largest road win under coach Steve Spurrier. Quarterback Connor Shaw guided the Gamecocks’ offense to 537 yards, while the Razorbacks (3-4, 0-3) turned in an anemic effort (248 yards) loaded with mistakes.
“I do feel badly for Arkansas,” Spurrier added. “It’s no fun getting your butt beat like this, at home on Homecoming and all that. They’re probably not as strong a team as they were when they were kicking our tails the last three times I’ve been in here.”
It certainly wasn’t the way Arkansas envisioned the end of its annual series with South Carolina. But the Razorbacks couldn’t do anything about it, losing their fourth straight and falling to 0-3 in Southeastern Conference for the first time since 2007.
Arkansas also dropped a school-record seventh straight conference game, a dubious stretch that began with the loss to Ole Miss on Oct. 27, 2012. The latest beating was the most lopsided Arkansas coach Bret Bielema has endured as a head coach, finishing second only to a 48-7 rout against Penn State in 2008.
It left Bielema apologizing for the performance afterward.
“I’ll tell you guys exactly what I told our team,” Bielema said in his postgame remarks. “(Saturday) is a day that you have to put in the memory bank and vow that you’ll never let it happen again as a head coach, as an assistant coach, as a coordinator, as a player, second string, third string. Just unacceptable.”
The only bright spot Saturday came from Arkansas’ opening-drive touchdown.
The Razorbacks marched downfield with confidence, getting a 20-yard completion from quarterback Brandon Allen to Javontee Herndon. Keon Hatcher raced 19 yards on a wide receiver sweep on the next play, which was then followed by a 16-yard run from fullback Kiero Small. Collins capped the drive with a 6-yard touchdown.
But nothing went right the rest of the way for a struggling offense.
The unraveling began — once again — after Allen threw an interception. His latest mistake wasn’t returned for a touchdown, but South Carolina cornerback Victor Hampton came close. Hampton stepped in front of a pass intended for receiver D’Arthur Cowan and returned it 21 yards to the Arkansas 6-yard line.
“Obviously, that corner sat right there on that play,” Bielema said. “He was either in our huddle or knew we were going to run that play. There’s no doubt.”
It was Allen’s fifth turnover in three games (four interceptions, fumble).
“That’s on me,” Allen said. “That’s my fault completely. I put either us or our defense in a bad situation. That’s something I’m working on, something I can’t accept.”
South Carolina punched the ball into the end zone on the next play to take a 10-7 lead. The embarrassment only grew from there as Arkansas wilted after the mistake.
Shaw threw two touchdown passes to Bruce Ellington in the second quarter, which helped the Gamecocks take a 24-7 halftime lead. The second came after Arkansas botched a fake punt in its own territory with 2:20 remaining. Bielema admitted afterward the ill-advised decision came out of desperation.
South Carolina got the ball to start the second half and scored again, when Shaw connected with Damiere Byrd for a 45-yard touchdown. It was part of South Carolina’s 28-point second half, which included backup quarterback Dylan Thompson’s 15-yard touchdown pass to former Arkansas receiver Kane Whitehurst.
The Gamecocks went 9-for-16 on third downs, 5-for-5 on fourth downs and dominated time of possession (43:25 to 16:35).
“When it came down to it fourth down was a big chance for us to show we can hold them and we didn’t do it,” Arkansas linebacker Jarrett Lake said. “They held the ball for 44 minutes so that means we didn’t do the job to stop them.”
South Carolina ran 89 plays Saturday, while Arkansas could only manage 37. The Razorbacks had three plays or fewer on eight of its 11 possessions Saturday.
“We turned the ball over a few times, we had a couple 3-and-outs, and that just kills your momentum as an offense,” Small said. “No one’s proud of how we played.”
Allen finished 4-for-12 for 30 yards and the interception, struggling in his second straight game. The sophomore – who insisted after the game his shoulder is not bothering him — went 3-for-10 for 10 yards after Arkansas’ first possession.
But he wasn’t the only one struggling. Collins’ fumble came with the Hogs trailing 45-7 and was the second of its kind Saturday. Hatcher – who equaled Collins with a team-high 69 rushing yards — also lost the ball on a 50-yard carry in the second half to wipe out what appeared to be a positive moment for the offense.
“We have a negative play and then it just cartwheels into everything and is around us in every way,” Bielema said about his team’s collapse. “It’s a very difficult thing. I know I’ve been a part of programs that were in it. And when they get out of it they can hit the ground running. But until we do that, it’s a very frustrating feeling.”
Arkansas won’t get any sympathy this week, though, with a road-trip to top-ranked Alabama on the schedule. The Crimson Tide beat Arkansas 52-0 in Razorback Stadium last season, which was a feat South Carolina nearly duplicated. Alabama also has beaten Arkansas six straight times dating back to the 2007 season.
Players insisted afterward they’ll find a way to bounce back from Saturday’s embarrassment and prepare for the Crimson Tide, though.
Bielema said there’s no question his players care, saying the locker room was full of disappointment and frustration. But he added: “It comes to a point where somebody’s just got to say that’s enough.”
“I feel for our guys, but on the same account, until we decide to make a stand it’s going to permeate and continue to be a part of what we’re doing,” Bielema said. “All of us have to get better starting with me.”