Last season South Carolina lost five heart-breaking games, four of them by a touchdown or less. This season the Gamecocks have not avoided the heart-stoppers, but they have managed to win them. Saturday’s escape, like this season’s 16-12 win at Georgia, came down to the last drive. In both games, the USC defense held off last minute drives. Unlike the Bulldogs, the improving Tar Heels were not ranked in the top 20.
In the first half the Gamecocks were effective on offense, scoring touchdowns on their second and third drives of the game behind the accurate passing of red-shirt freshman Chris Smelley, who was 14-19 for 136 yards in the first half in his third straight start.
The first was a seven yard strike to true freshman Dion Lecorn for his first Gamecock score, and then USC’s top receiver, Kenny McKinley, made a “Willie Mays” type adjustment and catch in the right corner of the Tar Heel end zone on a 30 yard Smelly strike for the second score. The two drives took 3:18 total and just nine plays.
Add in the nine play, 40-yard drive that ended with a Smelley to Jared Cook 12 yard scoring strike with just :15 left in the second quarter, and the Gamecocks raced to the locker room with a commanding 21-3 lead.
The second half was different. Near the end, USC looked like several other Top Ten teams in recent weeks – slated to lose.
“It was pretty scary,” said sophomore safety Emanuel Cook, who led Carolina with 9 tackles, had a sack, but had to watch wide receivers Jared Cook and Kenny McKinley jump up at the goal line to bat UNC quarterback TJ Yates’ last play prayer down toward the ground. Safety Darien Stewart and cornerback Brandon Isaac were out after being injured. McKinley gets the credit for knocking down the ball that was ruled incomplete and ended up in the arms of UNC’s Brooks Foster at the one yard line.
“I think field position played a big part” in UNC’s second half comeback, noted Cook. He and the Carolina defense ran onto the field at the USC 46, the UNC 38 and UNC 31 to start the last three defensive series after a USC interception, a punt and a missed 48 yard field goal by Ryan Succup with only :41 left, which would have iced the victory if he had made it.
At the end of the game, the Gamecocks were cold on offense, and fatigued on defense – something Cook denied - and hanging on, waiting for the clock to run out. When it did, Coach Steve Spurrier noted the most important fact – “We won the game, we won the game.”
“Touchdowns instead of field goals, I guess, proved to be the difference for us,” said Spurrier.
Whether it was one yard or one play short, North Carolina’s comeback was not easily explained by USC Defensive Coordinator Tyrone Nix. “They made a couple of plays, we missed a couple of tackles…I don’t know if I can explain it other than we didn’t play as well as in the first half,” said Nix. However, the Gamecocks were without Stewart and Isaac during key parts of the second half, which may have been a contributing factor.
South Carolina won the first battle of the Carolinas in sixteen years, but they didn’t look like a Top Ten team in doing it. The Gamecocks were an abysmal 1-12 on third down conversions, and again Spurrier was talking about changes in the offensive line after the game. “Somehow our guards still don’t block worth a dang. Its hard calling plays. Its hard going back there when the quarterback gets intentional grounding, it opens up the gates on him and it’s frustrating,” said Spurrier, whose line gave up 3 sacks. “We’ll have a new guard in there, somewhere in there.”
On fourth and nine from the ten yard line with 6:00 left, it looked like USC would need a comeback of its own to win, but UNC’s Greg Little let a touchdown pass from Yates slip through his hands, and Carolina outlasted the Tar Heels to improve to 6-1 on the season, its best start since 2001’s 6-1 start.
Smelley finished 17-26 for 172 yards, with one interception and the three TD tosses. Cory Boyd led USC on the ground with 95 yards on 20 carries, while Mike Davis carried just 5 times for 28 yards and had his first lost fumble of the season. McKinley caught 5 passes for 64 yards to extend his pass catching streak to 28 games. Sophomore defensive end Eric Norwood and the defensive line constantly harassed Yates, sacking him four times, including once by Norwood and once by E. Cook.
“Sometimes when teams have great seasons, they have some ugly wins.” Spurrier said. Some players and onlookers agreed it was an ugly win. But with this season’s parity and USC’s football history, the result will outlive the feeling some USC players, coaches and fans had after this game.
For some USC players who are from North Carolina, like center senior Webb Brown, it was a smile under a sweaty brow, not a frown, as he walked off the field, having beaten the team he and others had followed as kids and had later recruited them as high school stars. Was walking off the field a winner in Chapel Hill everything he wanted it to be? “A little ugly, but yes. I always dreamed about it.”
E. Cook and the rest of the Gamecocks will have to deal with their mistakes and missed opportunities during practice this coming week, but they still gained a win instead of a nightmare loss.
South Carolina will host SEC foe Vanderbilt next Saturday. Kickoff is scheduled for 12:30. The game will be available on pay-per-view inside the state of South Carolina, and as part of ESPN’s Gameplan outside the state.