COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Deebo Samuel scored three touchdowns, including a 100-yard kickoff return, Rico Dowdle ran for 226 yards and South Carolina became eligible for a bowl in coach Will Muschamp's first year with a 44-31 victory over Western Carolina on Saturday night.
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 -- and won for the fourth time in their past five games.
"This is a huge relief for us," left tackle Mason 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," Muschamp said. "It was really important with where we were after our first games."
The Gamecocks were 2-4 headed into their bye week. Since, they've won four of five games with only rival and fifth-ranked Clemson left in the regular season.
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.
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.
South Carolina is still getting its feet wet under 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 coach Will Muschamp wanted his team to qualify for the bowl -- the extra weeks of prep, planning, film study and practice the postseason gives his building program.
Reciever 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 is 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.
Western Carolina's season is finished.
South Carolina plays at Clemson on Saturday, trying to end a two-game losing streak to its rival.