FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Arkansas still knows how to finish in the second half.
The Razorbacks (No. 7 BCS, No. 8 AP) finally put a solid first-half effort ahead of that on Saturday night.
Tyler Wilson threw for 299 yards and two touchdowns to Jarius Wright, and Dennis Johnson added a 98-yard kickoff return as Arkansas pulled away late for a 44-28 win over South Carolina (No. 9 BCS, No. 10 AP).
The Razorbacks (8-1, 4-1 Southeastern Conference) entered the game having been outscored 87-59 in the first half of their last four games. They had rallied in the second half of each for wins, but they had no such slow start against the Gamecocks (7-2, 5-2).
Arkansas led 24-14 at halftime, holding South Carolina to 49 yards of total offense in the first half. The Razorbacks then overcame several offensive miscues in the second half and a challenge from the Gamecocks to win their fifth straight and keep their hopes of a return trip to a BCS bowl game alive.
“I think it gives us some credibility moving forward,” Wilson said. “We’ve got Tennessee next week, and it will be right out here.”
Arkansas outgained the Gamecocks 435-207 in total yardage, but a pair of missed field goals and key dropped passes kept the Razorbacks from taking control early. South Carolina pulled within 30-28 early in the fourth quarter on a touchdown run by quarterback Connor Shaw.
Shaw, playing in his third game since former South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia was dismissed from the team, struggled throughout against a Razorbacks defense that had five sacks. The sophomore was finally knocked out of the game late with what Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier called a concussion after Arkansas’ Jake Bequette sacked him for the third time.
The Gamecocks had scored 14 points in each of their last two games, both wins, and they continued to struggle offensively against the Razorbacks — gaining only 49 yards on 25 plays at halftime.
“Arkansas played very well, and they were a lot better than we were tonight certainly, on offense, defense and special teams,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said.
Despite the troubles, South Carolina stayed within striking distance thanks to big plays and Arkansas’ own offensive woes. Devin Taylor had a 48-yard interception return for a touchdown to give the Gamecocks a 14-10 lead early in the second quarter, and Shaw had a pair of second-half touchdown runs.
Shaw led South Carolina with 24 yards rushing on 14 carries. Freshman running back Brandon Wilds, who had 137 yards last week in his first start following a season-ending injury to Marcus Lattimore, was held to 21 yards on 10 carries.
“They just had a good defense,” Wilds said. “They did a lot of slanting, so it was just good defense.”
Arkansas moved the ball consistently against the SEC’s third-best defense, but it continually bogged down near the goal line. The Razorbacks were held to five field goal attempts, and kicker Zach Hocker missed a pair in the first half. His second miss was with four seconds remaining in the half, and it followed a dropped pass in the end zone by Arkansas’ Cobi Hamilton.
Still, after trailing 14-10, the normally slow-starting Razorbacks likely weren’t complaining too much about the 24-14 halftime lead.
“We didn’t start as fast as we would like it,” Wright said. “It was good to get out there and start a little bit faster than usual.”
Wilson answered Taylor’s interception return with a 68-yard touchdown pass to Wright on Arkansas’ first play following the South Carolina score to go up 17-14. The interception was the first Wilson had thrown after 184 attempts, a school record. He later found Wright again for a 16-yard touchdown before halftime.
It was the second time the Razorbacks answered a Gamecocks’ score on the first play. The first came when Johnson followed Wild’s first-quarter touchdown run with his kickoff return. It was Johnson’s third kickoff return for a touchdown of his career, his first since the opening game of the 2009 season against Missouri State.
“Even when we threw the interception for a touchdown, we came out the next play and answered with a big touchdown,” Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said. “So that’s what you have to do as an offense, is be able to answer whenever they get a touchdown, a field goal or whatever it is.
“You have to come back and answer and respond in a positive way, and our guys did that all night long.”