The first and second halves of the opening game of the 2006 Carolina football season was like a classic line from Dickens, with a twist - it was the worst of times, it was better times. The best has yet to come, but as Coach Spurrier said, “We got ourselves a win.” In a defensive struggle, USC prevailed 15-0 over the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
“It certainly proved to be a defensive battle and our defense proved to be the tougher of the two.” Spurrier said. “It was a wonderful victory; it was the first time I ever won here, so I’m a happy Gamecock. Our offense really sputtered along, and I probably called too many pass plays but their defensive line is really good. I probably should have just run and played defense.”
The first play of the season was an interception thrown by starting quarterback Blake Mitchell, who was immediately running for his life after the offensive line provided no protection for him. After a couple of stout defensive stands by USC, a scary exit for Mitchell came after he suffered a leg laceration. Coach Spurrier stated he thought the leg was broken after seeing it when he walked out on the field. Someone stepped on his leg to cause the injury.
Highly touted freshman quarterback Chris Smelley then entered the game, ending any question of a red shirt season for him with less than ten minutes gone in the opening game. On his second offensive series, Smelley completed a 43 yard completion to Kenny McKinley at the Bulldog 12 yard line. The defense stiffened, but USC scored the only points of the half on a field goal by Succop.
Mitchell returned after two series by Smelley, and quarterbacked the rest of the way. Spurrier stated after the game that he was pleased with Smelley tonight, but he “is not yet ready to play.”
The unquestioned most valuable player of the game was kicker Ryan Succop. He made all three of his field goal attempts, consistently helped USC win the field position battle with his punting, and when he tucked the ball and ran for a first down in the second half after a punt was about to be blocked. Spurrier said, “That was probably a ten point play because if they block it they get the ball and score. Instead, I think we drive the field and get a field goal after that. Ryan Succop had and All-American kicking/punting night.”
The second half of the game also featured more stellar play by the defense, which shut out a SEC team on the road for the first time since 1996 against Vanderbilt. The offense produced 12 more points, for a final score of 15-0. It was a tough loss for MSU Head Coach Sylvester Croom, who had promised this spring a win over South Carolina to the Bulldog faithful.
Commenting on the defense, Spurrier said, “Tyrone Nix called a great game. He called a gutsy game. We played the way we needed to play. So it just worked out.”
Coming into the game, much of the concern was on an untested USC defense that returned only one starter in pre-season All-SEC corner Fred Bennett, but the defense was the unit that shined tonight. Bennett had another kind of return tonight, picking off the ball on the 19 yard line in one of MSU’s deeper penetrations of the night, and returning it 30 yards to the 49.
After Bennett’s interception, Spurrier played true to form and went for the jugular, on a “double pass play,” where Mitchell threw to Newton and the defense bit on it, pursuing Newton, who then “got it as far down the field as I could” to a wide open Cory Boyd on the opposite side of the field. A 47 yard field goal by Succop put USC up by 15 and closed out the scoring.
Defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix commented on his defense’s play tonight, “We did some good things at times, but we still had too many missed tackles, too many missed assignments.” He said,” If we play hard, play smart, play with technique - do those three things we’ll have a chance. Tip your hat to the assistants, they got these guys prepared to play.”