Columbia S.C. — Winning this game was far less important than not losing it. South Carolina probably won’t move in the polls after their 35-25 win over Vanderbilt on Saturday night, nor are the Gamecocks any more likely to make it to Atlanta for the SEC Championship game. Their BCS standing shouldn’t budge and very few commentators will change their opinions after this one.
But if they had lost, the Gamecocks’ season would have effectively been over. One divisional hiccup can be overcome in the SEC — just look at Alabama and Georgia last year — but two is one too many, especially in the East where Tennessee and Kentucky are still struggling and Missouri will be an underdog in more than half of their conference games.
That was why Steve Spurrier ranted and paced and pulled on his headset all night, even though his team never trailed. After a stinging loss to his old nemesis Georgia a week ago, the Old Ball Coach wasn’t taking any chances. Spurrier and the Gamecocks wanted to beat the Commodores by three or four touchdowns — a Tennessee-Oregon-type of beat-down.
Unfortunately for Spurrier and the sellout crowd at Williams-Brice Stadium, James Franklins’ scrappy Vanderbilt team refused to follow the script.
After falling behind 28-0 in the second quarter, Vandy rallied to score 10 before halftime — a touchdown after an interception and a 54-yard field goal by Carey Spear as the second quarter expired.
South Carolina put up another touchdown in the third quarter on a 33-yard touchdown pass from Connor Shaw to tailback Brandon Wilds. But Vandy scored two more touchdowns in the fourth quarter, both coming after South Carolina special-teams blunders. The Commodores also completed a two-point conversion to pull within 10.
That was why Spurrier was beside himself for most of the night, punting his visor and benching his “second” quarterback, Dylon Thompson after the second-quarter interception, even though the Gamecocks were up by 28 at the time. It was why he ran onto the field and got in the middle of a referee conference after his team fumbled a punt. And it was why he had several animated conversations with his staff.
“Obviously we had some careless play on special teams,” Spurrier said afterward. “I told (special teams) Coach (Joe) Robinson that we’ve got to get you some better players out there. I don’t know what we’re doing, but we couldn’t make anything happen.”
Vanderbilt won neither the offensive or defensive battles, but they did win on special teams. The Commodore punter, Taylor Hudson, downed one putt at the seven yard line, another at the eight, and he boomed a third 75 yards to the South Carolina four yard line.
On the other side, South Carolina punter Tyler Hull ended the third quarter with an 18-yard punt that gave the Commodores great field position and set up a 10-play touchdown drive in which Vandy never threw a pass.
Two possessions later, Gamecock safety T.J. Gurley fumbled a Vanderbilt punt on the 37-yard line. Trailing by 10 at the time, it looked as though the Commodores might pull within a field goal and set up another wild finish like the one they had against Ole Miss at home in the first game of the season. But after five running plays that gained 34 yards, Commodore quarterback Austin Carta-Samuels threw an interception to cornerback Jimmy Lagree at the one-yard-line.
On the subsequent drive, Shaw took over, rushing for 11 yards in two plays to get his team out of their own end zone and then killing the clock with 23 plays that sealed the win.
“Connor played very well — ran and threw and made some good plays,” Spurrier said of Shaw, who ended the night as the Gamecocks leading rusher with 19 carries for 85 yards and another 284 yards in the air, completing 21 of 29 passes. “We gave him the game ball after,” Spurrier said. “He deserved it.”
As quarterback play went, this wasn’t a fair fight. Shaw looked poised throughout the game while Carta-Samuels seemed jarred by the speed of South Carolina’s defense. He only completed 12 passes for 147 yards and was sacked five times.
At SEC Media Days, the Gamecocks’ most famous player, Jadeveon Clowney, said that some SEC quarterbacks look his way with fear in their eyes. Since Carta-Samuels is a first-year starter, he wasn’t on that list in the summer, but he is now. The Commodores never ran a play without their quarterback looking in Clowney’s direction at least twice.
“Statistically, they didn’t make 300 yards, but it just felt like we couldn’t get them off the field,” Spurrier said. “Turnovers can turn things around as we know.
“We’re fortunate to get out of here and get another win at home and in the Eastern Division of the conference. Sometimes crap happens and you lose games like that. Kickoffs get returned and a punt bounces off a leg and anything can happen. We could have lost this one. Fortunately Jimmy (Lagree) got a pick and we were able to consume clock.”
Those comments showed Spurriers’ mindset after the win. He wasn’t all that happy with the victory, but he was thrilled not to have the loss.
“We’ll take a little time off and try to regroup,” he said as the Gamecocks enter a bye week. “We’ve got to stop the run better than we’re doing. There’s no doubt about that.”