Gamecocks top Gators, stay alive for SEC East title
COLUMBIA, S.C. — The football gods may have a perverse sense of humor sometimes, but they also have a clear understanding of what makes for good drama.
As in, it's Nov. 17, and we still don't know which programs will represent the East and West divisions at the SEC championship in Atlanta.
The primary reasons for the uncertainty: No. 10 South Carolina had just enough tricks in its bag to slip past Florida on Saturday night, 19-14.
And a few hours earlier, Auburn benefited from the college-football equivalent of The Immaculate Reception to stun Georgia, 43-38.
The stars were aligned for the Gamecocks to close out the SEC portion of their regular-season schedule on a high note, while essentially knocking the Gators (4-6, 3-5) out of bowl contention — minus a momentous upset of Florida State in two weeks.
(They'll need some help after that, too.)
But the final result only became academic once South Carolina, after booting two late field goals to go ahead by 5, stymied Florida on its last possession — a fruitless, five-play drive that looked eerily similar to the Gators' wayward, five-play drive a few minutes prior.
But then again, it's not like South Carolina requires the abstract benefit of "style points" to earn a piece of the SEC East title. On this night, the Gamecocks simply needed to take care of business.
"Somehow, it worked out again," said South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier, while sitting down for his post-game media scrum. "We're proud of our guys, proud to win 16 in a row (at home); our players played like winners."
"... And afterward, we had a happy bunch of Gamecocks (in the locker room)."
For the most part, Spurrier tried to downplay the significance of the South Carolina and Auburn victories (we'll connect the dots later).
But he also found time to squeeze in a pair of separate, but telling comments about what potentially lies ahead for the Gamecocks over the next 21 days:
"Maybe something bigger will happen for us down the road — I don't know."
"I think it was just meant to be for us to win tonight."
South Carolina opened the scoring with a chip-shot field goal from Elliott Fry early in the first quarter. Seven minutes later, Florida countered with a 20-yard touchdown run from Kelvin Taylor — the first of two scores on the night.
The sequence repeated in the second frame, with Fry connecting on a 45-yard field goal early on and then the Gators' Taylor — the son of former NFL star Fred Taylor — sprinting for a 29-yard touchdown down the right side.
In a flash, the star-crossed, seemingly anemic Gators were leading 14-6 and poised to put a damper on perhaps Jadeveon Clowney's final SEC game at Williams-Brice Stadium.
But Florida's advantage was short-lived. In the third quarter, South Carolina QB Connor Shaw (213 yards passing, one TD) sprinted out of the pocket to the right side and lofted a 32-yard touchdown pass to Bruce Ellington — with the junior wideout adjusting to the underthrown ball in midair.
It was the most important throw in a game of multiple near-misses for Shaw.
"Sometimes that happens; and all you can do is to make sure it doesn't happen again," said Shaw, whose Gamecocks have beaten the Gators three times in four years. "We're very fortunate to win tonight."
After that, Fry and the Gamecocks' Other No. 7, running back Shon Carson, helped bring home the hard-fought victory.
The former kicked two crucial field goals in the fourth quarter; and the latter kick-started South Carolina's game-winning drive with a sterling 58-yard run up the middle.
Carson's run "was one of the big plays of the game," said Spurrier, while lamenting how his offense should utilize the draw play more often ... and ease off on the off-tackle runs.
"I knew it was going to be a tough game — I told the guys all week," said Spurrier, who then playfully admonished an unknown South Carolina reporter for writing something like, 'Spurrier could run up the score on 'em' in the mid-week buildup to this rivalry game.
"(The opposing team) reads that" kind of bulletin-board material, said the half-joking Spurrier, the Gators' wildly successful coach from 1990-2001.
Spurrier was obviously in a good mood, the by-product of the Gamecocks going consecutive games without committing a turnover.
"That's probably why we won both of 'em."
Last weekend, Florida incurred a blowout home loss to Vanderbilt, despite surrendering just 12 first downs and 187 total yards to the Commodores.
From the perspective of impatient Gators fans, it might have been the low point of coach Will Muschamp's tenure in Gainesville — especially since that day marked the first time in history Vanderbilt had defeated Georgia and Florida in the same season.
Fast forward to this night, as only freshman Kelvin Taylor (111 total yards, two touchdowns) put a significant dent into the box score — while the Gators passing game (freshman Skyler Mornhinweg completed 10 of 13 passes for 107 yards) was equal parts efficient and pedestrian.
"I am very proud of our guys' effort," said Muschamp after the game. "We followed the script ... and that was ball possession, field position, beat the clock, play good defense — which we did for the most part throughout the night, against a very good offensive team."
Florida relied on a conservative strategy of time-consuming rushes (totaling 200 yards) and a ball-hawking defense that essentially kept the South Carolina playmakers in check — minus the 58-yard dash from Carson (102 yards).
"I am very proud of (Mornhinweg). I just told him to cut loose and have fun," said Muschamp, now 21-13 over two-plus seasons with the Gators.
He then added: "We were able to eat the clock, move the clock and follow the script, so to speak, and do what we (needed) to be successful."
To that end, Florida won the time-of-possession battle, 31-29.
"A reminder to those in the media: There is no cheering in the press box."
These were the sage words of the South Carolina PA announcer just seconds after Auburn pulled off perhaps the greatest touchdown in school history — a deflected Hail Mary completion that helped beat Georgia, while simultaneously preserving the Tigers' once-unthinkable hopes for an SEC West title.
Understandably, the assembled media at Williams-Brice Stadium — at least those watching the Georgia-Auburn conclusion online — could be forgiven for momentarily breaching press box etiquette, given the absurdity of the Tigers' fourth-down miracle against the Bulldogs ... just minutes after blowing a late 37-17 lead.
The reasons for the noise were simple: Thanks to Auburn's victory, South Carolina (8-2, 6-2 in conference action) has now entered a two-horse race for the SEC title, leaving only Missouri in the running for a trip to Atlanta on Dec. 7.
Here's the situation: With South Carolina safely "in the clubhouse" at 6-2 in SEC action, Missouri must carry its final two conference games (@ Ole Miss, vs. Texas A&M) to win the East division outright and advance to the title game.
Otherwise, by virtue of the Tigers' double-overtime loss to South Carolina on Oct. 26, the Gamecocks would earn tiebreaker privileges and secure the Atlanta invite — with the prospect of encountering either No. 1 Alabama (which beat Mississippi State on Saturday) or No. 7 Auburn in the SEC championship.
The Crimson Tide and Tigers have their winner-take-all showdown at Auburn on Nov. 29.
Which brings us back to the humorous timing of the South Carolina PA announcer's anti-cheering warning:
On the field, the Gamecocks and Gators had just finished an innocuous second-down play early in the game — a time when most sportswriters are still scoping out the buffet line in the press area.