By PETE IACOBELLI
AP Sports Writer
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Western Carolina's season is finished.
South Carolina plays at Clemson on Saturday, trying to end a two-game losing streak to its rival.