"It feels good to win," Croom said. "We're glad just to win a ball game."
The Bulldogs not only won but led this one practically from kickoff-to-horn. Practically, because the very first play of the afternoon produced points for State when cornerback Derek Pegues intercepted a Gamecock pass and ran it back 26 yards for a touchdown. Pegues would account for State's other first-half score on a 81-yard punt return in the second quarter.
Still while one man's two touchdowns might very well have been sufficient for success this day, the State staff was in no mood to let the offense coast. Not after being out-gained by the lower-Division counterparts 113 yards to 78 in the first half. Croom was blunt on the topic at intermission. "He reminded us we (the offense) were playing the game," Butler reported.
The most direct demands were made of quarterback Mike Henig. In his first start since breaking a collarbone in the season-opener, the sophomore wasn't quite in-synch for a couple of quarters. "I'd say the first half I was terrible," Henig put it. "In the locker room Coach (Woody) McCorvey challenged me, we came out the second half and did what we know we can do."
And did it well. With halfback Brandon Thornton bouncing through the Gamecock defense, and Henig hitting just a few timely tosses, the offense scored on consecutive series to open the third quarter and break this one open. The Bulldogs registered 201 yards in this period alone with completed drives of 70 and 90 yards.
"The second half we got a lot better as an offense," said Henig, who finished with 183 passing yards and a touchdown completion to Butler.
The third quarter really belonged to Thornton, who began the season as the starting halfback but after early injury had slipped to third on the depth chart. He only had one rush in the whole first half, for four yards. Yet in the locker room Croom had a feeling the sophomore was ready to deliver in a big way.
"He came to me earlier in the week and said ‘Coach, I think I have an opportunity to help the team by making 15 to 20 carries a game," Croom said. "I told him he was going to get his opportunities and to make the most of them."
Thornton did. In the decisive opening drive of the second half he carried the ball six times for 38 of the 70 yards. In the middle of those totes Henig had a crucial play of his own, connecting on 3rd-and-9 with Jamayel Smith for 32 yards and first down at the Gamecock 20-yard line. Thornton did the rest on three-straight runs, the last a seven-yard scamper around the right end.
"I said OK, now's the time, let's see if he can get it done," Croom said. "We put the saddle on and rode him the first couple of drives."
Getting the ball back after Pegues stuffed JSU tailback Clay Green on 3rd-and-1 to force a punt, Henig directed another touchdown drive. Thornton again got it with a 15-yard run and 13-yard screen pass. Henig bootlegged left and found wideout Aubrey Bell for 25 yards to the JSU 31-yard line, and Thornton picked up 16 more. Having gotten the ball that far Thornton was allowed to take a break and Henig, on play-action, found Butler open in the end zone at 5:49 for a 28-3 lead.
"It wasn't really designed for me," Butler admitted. "I was the second read, I popped open, Mike saw me and threw it." The touchdown was the first of the season for both thrower and catcher.
Still Thornton's day wasn't entirely done. Nor was the offense perfect in the third quarter. The ensuing kickoff resulted in a Gamecock turnovers when cornerback David Heard rattled the ball loose from Green and Marcus Washington recovered at the 18-yard line. A pass interference had State on the JSU three where under pressure Henig tried to force another throw to Butler that was intercepted by Devin Phillips a step inside the goal line.
But after the Gamecocks were stopped on 4th-and-3, with defensive end Titus Brown upending Green for a loss of three, the Bulldog offense got back to good work. Henig hit Bell in-stride for a 36-yard gain for first-and-goal at the ten, and Thornton was given four-straight chances. The last paid off with a one-yard jaunt for the final margin of victory.
Thornton finished with a career-best 88 yards on 16 carries with the two touchdowns. "It felt real good. Coach gave me an opportunity to play. On the sideline he was like ‘if you're ready I'm putting you in.' He's been saying he wanted playmakers to step up, I told him if felt if I got the ball in my hands I'd be able to help the team."
Nobody was better with the ball in his hands than Pegues, though. The sophomore already had one touchdown return this season on a pick in the third quarter at LSU. That game was already out-of-hand by then; this game had only just got underway when Pegues set an instant tone. On first down at their 27-yard line, the run-oriented Gamecocks tried to catch the Dog defense napping with quarterback Matt Hardin dropping to throw.
He almost immediately had defensive end Michael Heard in his facemask. "He threw it up and I was able to make that play," Pegues said. "I saw all the receivers were upfield and knew I could outrun the linemen."
The Gamecocks didn't turn into road-game-kill so easily. Henig and center Royce Blackledge didn't get the exchange right and JSU's George Summers fell on the fumble at State's 20-yard line. Tackle Deljuan Robinson kept Green from advancing on 3rd-and-1 so the Gamecocks settled for a 28-yard field goal from Gavin Hallford at 5:14.
What mattered was already the Bulldogs showed they had a good grip on the situation and could handle a JSU ground attack which came in averaging 210 yards per game. The Gamecocks would get 24 in the first quarter and 52 net for the entire game. "In the first quarter we were a little tentative," Croom said. "But I thought we adjusted to it very well. No question we tackled better today, I was concerned after the difficulty we had tackling West Virginia's backs. Green is a quality back, but we got him down." Green finished with 48 yards on 21 attempts and never got more than nine yards past the line of scrimmage.
Still State's offense was not nearly up to any speed itself, and the few really productive plays were negated by holding calls; three times in all, including a touchdown scamper off a shovel pass by halfback Arnil Stallworth shortly before halftime. Fortunately Pegues was available to put more points up. He fielded a punt at State's 19-yard line with JSU's Carnell Clark bearing down fast.
"I figured I could make one man miss and I was able to do that," Pegues said. Barely, as he had to break a hand-tackle. But that only spun him to the left and right into an open lane all the way to the end zone. "The return team gave me some good blocks." Bell most notably, shielding off the last possible tackler from the 15-on-in to allow Pegues to get in at 11:40 of the second period. It was the seventh-longest punt return score in MSU history.
"It was good to go on and get on the board and stay on top the whole game," Pegues said.
The closest JSU came to scoring six came right after the return, as Hardin hit Taurean Rhett for 34 yards and only an ankle-grab by David Heard kept it from becoming a 64-yard touchdown. As it was the Gamecocks had to settle for a 48-yard field goal attempt that tackle Andrew Powell blocked.
Hardin, with just 90 passes in the first five games this season, went to the air 26 times today completing a dozen balls for 149 yards. None produced points and he was sacked three times. The bigger point was JSU had to abandon their trademark ground game.
"Once they started throwing we'd pretty much got them out of their scheme," linebacker Quinton Culberson said. "Our defensive line pretty much shut their running game down. They got a lot of tackles, they kept me from making tackles…and that's a good thing!" The senior LB had only five stops while Powell had seven and Brown and LB Gabe O'Neal six each.
"We felt they had a pretty good running back so all week we talked about shutting down the run," Powell said. "We played well as a front."
Or as an entire team, particularly when the offense joined the second-half party. Croom was unhappy with the first-half penalties which aborted good drives, but on the whole there was little to complain about. Even the injuries, to FB Bryson Davis and OT J.D. Hamilton, did not seem serious at the moment. And after a frustrating first ‘half' of the schedule just winning was welcome, even if at the expense of a lower-Division victim. Now the Bulldogs have something more positive to build on as the schedule toughens again.
"We started over," Croom said. "We've got everybody in position now. We know who is going to pay what role in the team. Now it's just a matter of getting better."
"It feels good to get some things to go our way," said Culberson. "It's a confidence booster going into next week against Georgia."