'Cocks Block Bulldog Bid For Road Win

Just as on every other attempt this day, Blake McAdams did his job putting a swift right foot to ball there at around four minutes of the third quarter. "I thought I hit it pretty good," the Bulldog punter said. "Then I heard a second ‘thump' and that's usually not a good sign."

Not for Mississippi State anyway. Not when an unblocked Gamecock zoomed in for a clean block recovered at the Bulldog 27-yard line. And especially not when South Carolina cashed in the opportunity instantly for the game-changing touchdown en route to a 38-21 victory at Williams-Brice Stadium. The Bulldogs had their three-game win streak snapped and left Columbia 3-2, 1-2 SEC, while the Gamecocks improved to 4-1, 2-1 SEC.

Yet deep into the third period this was a game poised to fall either way, with State leading 21-17. The visitors had mixed deliberate passing from a pair of still-raw quarterbacks with a lot of pure power from halfbacks Anthony Dixon and Christian Ducre to take their first lead of the day at 8:56. That was after Dixon capped a five-play drive, set up by superior McAdams punting, with his second touchdown of the day. Then when South Carolina settled for and missed a long field goal, most of the 78,883 present antsy about how Homecoming was playing out.

"I felt at that point we had the upper hand," Coach Sylvester Croom said. Five minutes later everything had turned around. "Any time a punt is blocked it's a big momentum change," said McAdams, who averaged 46 yards on his six un-touched efforts and was not to blame for the block.

The other one came on 4th-and-11 at the MSU 45, after the Bulldog offense failed to duplicate their ground-gaining ways of the previous touchdown series. The snap, catch, and kick were all by-the-book; the protection wasn't. Croom nor kicking coach Reed Stringer would call out a culprit, though Stringer did say South Carolina attacked just as all previous punt plays. "We just didn't do a good job on it," said Stringer, after SC's Eric Norwood blew through unchallenged by the center. "He got through clean and got a hand of the ball."

South Carolina recovered at State's 27-yard line and immediately went for the kill. Quarterback Chris Smelley had time, just as most of the day, to read his receivers and hit wideout Kenny McKinley at the five-yard line. He got around a safety and into the end zone at 3:43 to put the Gamecocks up 24-21.

"That blocked punt put us out of everything," said Croom. "We put ourselves in a bad position." Which only got worse after the Bulldogs had to punt again from the 30-yard line, this time successfully. But the Gamecocks were strutting now, and the fourth quarter began with the ball on their 48-yard line. Before the snap the flanker and split end quickly swapped spots out on the left end, with State's defenders not getting a chance to adjust. It left McKinley matched on a safety now, and the wideout shot by on a slant for the quick catch and 48-yard gainer. Mike Davis hit center for the touchdown at 14:07 and a 31-21 score.

The last South Carolina score came with 58 seconds left on a 12-yard rush by Davis. It only mattered in the margin as the outcome had been settled earlier.

"Give South Carolina credit for coming out with more motivation and coming back with pride," said Dixon. And poise, too. For their part the Bulldogs were openly frustrated how the day had turned out. Asked if State had left a win on the field, Croom agreed. "That's an opportunity you can't let slip away in this conference."

Yet, it had. "They made more plays than we did today," DE Titus Brown said.

The top play-maker for South Carolina was Smelley, returned to starting duty this week. The second-year freshman was 19-of-37 passing for 279 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. The pick came in the first half; in the second Smelley did little wrong and a lot more right, picking apart State's coverages whether the Dogs played four, five, or six in the secondary.

"He was a little more confident in the pocket," said Brown. "He got in a rhythm and came up with some big plays." Smelley also had opportunity to make those plays with mostly-reliable protection. In only one series did he suffer a sack—two of them, both by Brown. And not-so-coincidentally it was during the third-quarter stretch State was bidding to take control of things on both sides of the ball. Otherwise, though, the Bulldog defense was kept at a safe distance from the passer and Smelley could usually count on somebody sliding into open ground.

"Our zone coverage didn't play well," said Croom. "And we didn't tackle well." Which was how Cory Boyd and Mike Davis combined for 117 rushing yards, slashing through arm-tackles and spinning off hits for extra gains. South Carolina finished with 402 yards and 5.6 per-snap. Brown said it was mental breakdowns more than anything causing the problems. "Coach (Ellis) Johnson called the right plays, we just didn't execute."

"We're an aggressive defense and we played hard, but sometimes we don't play as smart as we should," said Croom.

The Dogs were better on the ground as Dixon muscled for 83 yards and two scores, with 68 more yards gained by Christian Ducre. But in the air State came up short. Starter Josh Riddell was 9-of-21 passing for 101 yards before a late game knee injury. He did throw for State's other touchdown, a 28-yard strike to Aubrey Bell in the first quarter, and the only interception as well. Wesley Carroll played some second-quarter series in rotation as planned, and took care of State's last possession. He was 3-of-6 for just 17 yards. Both were sacked once.

"Josh did a good job for us, for the first time getting the start," said Dixon.

But Smelley was sharp from the start directing a dozen-play drive, including a 3rd-and-15 connection with Freddie Brown for 20 yards against State's nickel-package. On 2nd-and-goal Davis hit left guard, flipped into the air and landed on the goal line for a 7-0 lead. State didn't build on a 35-yard strike from Riddell to Tony Burks but McAdams' punt was downed at the three-yard line, South Carolina's angled punt only got to their 31, and on play-action Riddell found Bell at the 15-yard line. The wideout spun off two tacklers to tie the game at 5:17.

Smelley's only big gaffe came as he forced a throw for the end zone intercepted by safety Derek Pegues, who got to the 15-yard line. The Gamecocks got another chance as Jared Cook beat substitute linebacker Jamon Hughes for 22 yards to State's 15, then Smelley evaded the rush to find McKinley for the touchdown at 13:28.

It was Carroll directing the second tying-drive, of 14 plays. Penalties played the big part though as a face-mask of a MSU lineman got a first down at the SC 37. And when a halfback/throwback try on fourth down saw Dixon sacked, a Gamecock was called for holding in the end zone away from the play. Dixon went behind guard Craig Jenkins' block for a tying touchdown at 2:20. That left enough time to get in Ryan Succop's range for a 45-yard field goal and 17-14 South Carolina lead at halftime.

Again it was McAdams punting that put State in good position for a third-quarter drive to take that lead, with Riddell handing off twice to Ducre (13, 2 yards) and thrice to Dixon (22, 9, 2) for the 21-17 lead. Even after a kickoff return to midfield and one fourth-down conversion the Gamecocks trailed when Succop hooked a 50-yard attempt. But one move of the chains later the Bulldogs were punting and Norwood was blocking to change the game.

"It's hard to bounce back off of that," said Brown.

Riddell tried to with completions to Burks and Co-Eric Riley for first downs, though Burks couldn't come down with a very nice deep throw to the SC five-yard line. Facing 4th-and-1 State had to try, and Dixon was supposed to attack at right guard. "They blitzed both the middle gaps, so I got behind one of my big blockers on the strong side. We didn't get it done." Dixon was strung-out for a loss of yards and possession at the 39-yard line with 11 minutes left.

As soon as Croom saw Dixon's numbers clearly he knew. "When they make him go east-to-west we're not going to make it." State managed a few first downs in the fourth quarter but no real drives, and Riddell was hurt rolling out of bounds inside of four minutes. "It's something I did, landed on the left knee and it buckled under me," he said. "I'll be alright, you have to try to stay positive." The joint was iced on the sideline and while Riddell left the field unaided he came out of the locker room on crutches, just in case.

Croom had hoped to come out of Columbia knowing who would be the starting quarterback for the coming weekend's home game with Alabama-Birmingham. Even before the injury to Riddell, who found out Friday he would start this one, the question remained unanswered between him and Carroll. Now the offensive staff will await a Sunday morning examination of Riddell's knee and evaluate their own situation. "If Josh is out some time, we'll play two true freshman," said Croom, speaking of Carroll and so-far unused classmate Chris Relf. "That's where we're at."

The Bulldogs were also at a very frustrated point leaving the stadium. But not because they'd been whipped on the SEC road. This was due to having played well enough to win but not for long enough. "Not to take anything from South Carolina, but I thought we hurt ourselves tremendously," said Croom, meaning poor tackling, far too many penalties on both sides, a couple of un-timely choices of outside routes by runners when the inside-power was working. And, of course, the blocked punt that became a roadblock the Bulldogs couldn't get around.

"We're going to come back and know that we let one get away," said Dixon.


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