The last time South Carolina beat Tennessee in Columbia, it was 1992, and South Carolina’s freshman quarterback began a storied career in garnet and black with the victory. We all know how Steve Taneyhill’s career turned out. Stephen Garcia’s legacy has a long way to go before it is finished being written, but his first victory and first SEC victory as a starting quarterback came as a result of another outstanding effort by the Gamecock defense and special teams units.
The USC defense limited the Vol offense to just 34 yards rushing, the lowest ever for a Steve Spurrier coached team at USC. The six points allowed were the fourth fewest allowed under Spurrier, and the 11 first downs allowed by the defense were tied for the second fewest under Spurrier. Throw in the first interception returned for a touchdown this season, and it was a banner night for the Carolina “D”.
“It was a super defensive game and special teams game by the Gamecocks,” Coach Steve Spurrier said in his post-game press conference.
It was a must-win game for the Gamecocks, and win they did, though it wasn’t pretty on offense. The Gamecocks needed the win to reach bowl eligibility. Check. They needed the win to put them in position for a good season, a New Year’s Day bowl, and a strong finish in recruiting. Check. And they needed the win in the tough SEC East to solidify their place as a team that can do more than just contend, but also win in the conference, for all of the above reasons. Check.
The only one who needed the win more than the Gamecocks was the opposing coach, Phil Fulmer. Despite his strong resume that includes a national championship at Tennessee, this 16th season at the helm may be his last, and this game may have been the final straw. It has happened before. Fulmer took over mid-season from Johnny Majors after the loss to South Carolina in 1992.
Fulmer brought a stellar 14-1 record against USC into Saturday night’s game, but left with his second loss in four games with Spurrier at the helm of the Gamecocks, and saw his record against the head ball coach drop to 5-9 lifetime. He summed his team’s loss this way: "You can't give an offense that struggles to score points 17 points - 14 on offensive turnovers and three on a fumble on a punt return. You can't give the other team points like that when you struggle to score points yourself."
Fulmer was visibly disappointed with the loss. “I think enough has already been said, I don’t have to say too much,” he said. “Obviously we’re disappointed.” He was optimistic, if given the chance, that he could turn the team around after this season. "Sure," he said. "I've never had back-to-back losing seasons since I've been here.”
Whether he will be given the chance to return next season was asked but not answered by Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton, who declined to comment as he left the stadium, other than to say, "I think Phillip deserves some respect tonight."
The Gamecocks raised their record to a bowl-eligible 6-3, and evened their conference record at 3-3. The Vols dropped to 3-6 on the season and 1-5 in the conference. Fulmer’s record is now 150-51 at Tennessee, while Spurrier is 27-19 at South Carolina and 169-59-2 as a college head coach. Spurrier moves into sole possession of eighth place in Carolina history with the 27 wins.
South Carolina opened the scoring in the game with one of the more impressive offensive drives of the season. Stephen Garcia hit Kenny McKinley for strikes of 19 and 18 yards, and then tossed the ball to running back Eric Baker, who gained most of the 31 yards on the play after catching the ball. After a two yard rush by Garcia when he couldn’t find anyone open, he hit Mike Davis for a 12 yard touchdown reception to put the Gamecocks up 7-0.
Then it was first, first, first, and another first for the home team. On the first play of the second quarter, Stoney Woodson intercepted a Nick Stephens pass and returned it 68 yards for a touchdown. It was the first turnover in 193 straight plays for the UT offense, and more strikingly, the first interception in 107 attempts by Stephens. And it was the first interception returned for a touchdown this season, and the first one returned since Nathan Pepper last did it on Sept 15, 2007 against SC State.
“It was a drag route, so I just kind of got under it,” Woodson said. “We got some good pressure by the defensive line, made a force-out and made a play.” His coach summed it up as the key to the game: “We got all kinds of good turnovers, and that’s why we won the game. Super defense, super defense,” said Spurrier.
The next two Volunteer drives pretty well summed up the night for both the visitors and the defense that was constantly in their face. Taking over on their own 20 after a touchback, backup Vol quarterback Jonathan Crompton made an eight yard completion, only to have his team backup five yards on a penalty, followed by an incompletion, followed by a 5 yard sack by Chris Culliver.
After South Carolina drove to the Vol 44, Garcia was unsuccessful on a 4th and 1 attempt to get a first down, and the Vols took over in good field position. Crompton completed a pass to Lennon Creer, who was forced to fumble by the Gamecock’s Travian Robertson, and Captain Munnerlyn scooped up the ball and returned it to the Volunteer 4 yard line before being tackled by Ramon Foster. Four seconds later with 10:17 left in the second quarter, Garcia hit McKinley for a quick six, and the Gamecocks went up 21-0.
That was the last touchdown for the home team clad in black jerseys for the night, and the offense pretty much faded to black after a Ryan Succop 31 yard field goal on the first USC drive of the second half. Succop would score one more time, but only after UT turned the ball over to the tenacious Gamecock defense at their own 14, and the USC offense netted zero yards on three plays, forcing Succop to go for three, which he did, on another 31 yard effort with 3:12 left in the game.
Spencer Lanning was given a game ball by Spurrier for his eight punts of the night. His 55 yard effort was trumped at the end of the play when Charles Turner forced Rogan to fumble. The punt efforts and the turnover were good summaries of the USC special teams’ contribution to the game, but their highlight reel moment had to be Chris Culliver’s 66 kickoff return after UT’s only score of the night.
Garcia completed 9 of 19 attempts for 139 yards and two touchdowns, but he gained both touchdowns and 93 of the yards in the first half. In the second half, he only completed 3 of 7 attempts for 46 yards, and was intercepted once. He left the game after having his right knee hyper extended on the interception play when he was attempting to stop the UT return. Garcia should be fine for next Saturday’s game against Arkansas, but bad things happen on bad plays, and offensive lineman Lemuel Jeanpierre also suffered a right knee injury on the play, and the redshirt junior’s injury was a season ending one.
South Carolina’s coaches chose to play very conservatively the rest of the game, and Chris Smelley completed one pass when he came in to replace Garcia - his only pass attempt. He did have a touchdown pass to Wesley Saunders called back on a questionable call by the officials of not having six men on the line.
The Gamecock rushing attack has been anemic, and the USC staff chose to run the ball 44 times in the game, the second most attempts in Spurrier’s four seasons in Columbia, and only one rush shy of the most attempts, which occurred on September 27 of this season against UAB. The result? 101 net yards rushing, 66 by Mike Davis, 23 by Eric Baker, 16 by Bobby Wallace, and 7 by the two quarterbacks combined.
Spurrier joked after the game about it, saying, “We said we were going to run the ball. We didn’t say we were going to run it real far, but we did run the ball.”
“(On) offense, the best thing we did, we only had one turnover I think.” Spurrier said. “No fumbles lost. We took care of the ball, and played field position.” The result was an offense that looked more like one coached by Spurrier’s predecessor Lou Holtz than a Spurrier offensive juggernaut. “Our defense set us up for about all of our points,” he said. “We had one drive there in the first quarter.”
“It was a defensive game where turnovers made the difference, and we got all the good ones. That’s why we won 27 to six. I’m proud of our guys.” said Spurrier.
The head ball coach was critical of his starting quarterback after the game. “Stephen is really not ready to play,” he said. “He’s just not ready. It’s a struggle for him, knowing where everybody is and all.” When asked about Garcia’s grasp of USC’s complicated offensive playbook, Spurrier said, “He’s not familiar with everything. We had trouble sending plays in. He can make some plays now. He can run out there and freelance around and make some plays.”
Spurrier repeated, “He’s just not ready. But he’s got some ability now. He’s got a lot of ability to make some plays. He needs to know what’s going on out there.”
Spurrier’s biggest criticism of Garcia after his first start the previous week against LSU was his getting sacked six times by the Bayou Bengals’ defense. He did better in throwing the ball away when under pressure this game, and was never sacked. He completed a couple passes when in the grasp of Tennessee defenders in the backfield. “That scramble play to Kenny McKinley early in the game got our only one drive going, so that was a heck of a play by Stephen,” Spurrier said.
Garcia praised his teammates when talking about those improvements. “The line did a great job of protecting me,” he said. “Coach Spurrier worked with me a lot about getting rid of the ball if it’s not there. No sacks are pretty good for us.”
In contrast, the Tennessee offense had only given up 12 sacks all season coming into the game, but gave up half that number to the aggressive Gamecock D. The result was Tennessee netting 34 yards on 28 carries. “I’m gaining a deep appreciation for our defense and our special teams,” Spurrier said. “They were close to perfect tonight.” When a reporter asked about an extension for specials teams coordinator Ray Rychleski, referencing the extension defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson just received, Spurrier pointed to athletic director Eric Hyman with a smile and said, ask him. I sure wouldn’t be opposed to his getting a raise.”
Spurrier closed by saying, “We’re happy to be 6-3, and we’re going to try and get to 7-3 next week if we can. It was nice to get bowl eligible. It’s very nice, and we’re not taking it for granted.” Most of the 81,731 in attendance would agree. The rest were dressed in orange, and most of them left early.
One significant factor in playing Tennessee each year is how their fans gets revved up when the UT band plays Rocky Top after every big play. There weren’t a lot of big plays for Tennessee Saturday night, and the sounds of good ol’ Rocky Top were noticeably absent. The loudest rendition of the song heard Saturday night was when the band played it after the game, outside the stadium as their team boarded the busses. The team was anything but revved up by it.
The Gamecocks next face SEC rival Arkansas in Columbia next Saturday at 1 p.m.