It wasn't the Sports Illustrated jinx that stopped Ole Miss. It was the Rebels' own buttery fingers.
A week after garnering national media attention, including the SI cover, with an upset of then-No. 4 Florida, Ole Miss (3-3, 1-2) gift wrapped its game against South Carolina Saturday with two costly turnovers that led to 14 points, as the Gamecocks (4-2, 1-2) capitalized when necessary and defeated the Rebels, 31-24, before a Vaught-Hemingway Stadium crowd of 54,628.
Ole Miss gashed the top-ranked Gamecock defense for 361 total yards, 150 more than South Carolina's average allowed, but a fumble in each half caused the nice offensive day to lose its luster.
"You can't beat yourself," Houston Nutt said. "It is still there. You beat yourself, and it will be long days. Hopefully it is something we can get over."
With the Rebels leading 21-17 and driving inside the USC 10-yard line, Dexter McCluster caught a crossing route on third down before being met by Chris Culliver and coughed up the football on the six. Emmanuel Cook scooped up the loose ball and raced 52 yards. Ten plays later, Chris Smelley found Jason Barnes for a six-yard score. Just like that, South Carolina led and would not trail anymore.
The third quarter fumble and subsequent return switched the momentum, but an earlier one most likely kept South Carolina from having too big of a hole to dig out of.
On Ole Miss' third possession of the day and after it had scored two touchdowns, Jevan Snead rolled left and had the ball knocked out by Jumpy Geathers. Defensive lineman Nathan Pepper retrieved the ball and bounded 29 yards for the Gamecock's first touchdown to make the score 14-10 at that time.
"The first-half fumble was the play that turned it around," Steve Spurrier said.
"You just can't fumble like that," Nutt said. "Can't turn the ball over, they were game-changers today. Have to win the turnover margin. Today was the exact opposite of that."
South Carolina used the second turnover to take the lead, and then on its next possession, drove 95 yards on 11 plays to grab a two-score advantage. UM punter Rob Park boomed a 50-yarder that was downed inside the 10 along with a USC holding penalty, but Terrell Jackson played past the whistle and was flagged for 15 yards. The Gameocks started at the 20 instead of the five.
Ole Miss' Josh Shene kicked a 38-yard field goal to pull the Rebels within seven with 3:48 left, and the defense did its job to get the ball back, but one final mistake sealed the outcome.
Similar to last week versus Florida, the Ole Miss defense stepped up on fourth-and-one with the game on the line. The interior stuffed Mike Davis to give the ball back to the offense, but on the second play of the drive, Snead floated a pass down the left side that was intercepted by cornerback Carlos Thomas.
Ball game over.
"I let it go, and he was right there," Snead said. "Big mistake."
With Ole Miss at .500 halfway through the season, the Rebels have to endure an open date before returning to the field with a visit to Alabama two weeks from today.
"We don't need any time off," McCluster said. "It will be a tough couple weeks because you want to get back on the field and fix things. Definitely frustrating."
McCluster's fumble occurred near the same end zone that the junior coughed one up late in the Vanderbilt game on a pivotal drive. And while it will be the play remembered, McCluster accounted for 139 yards of total offense, with 99 of those coming in receptions. He also had a rushing score that extended the Rebels' lead to 11 in the first quarter.
Snead completed 21-of-32 passes for 243 yards with one score and the one interception. Decent enough stats, but the player of the game was Smelley. The Carolina quarterback, who wasn't sure if he would start until Friday, tossed for three touchdowns and 327 yards on 22-of-32 passes. He also had an interception.
On the rushing stats, Brandon Bolden and Cordera Eason each carried the ball 10 times with 36 and 29 yards respectively. Eason opened the scoring with an eight-yard run, and Bolden helped Ole Miss regain the lead, 21-17, with a 24-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter.
Mike Davis returned from injury and rushed for 76 yards for Carolina.
Jamarca Sanford totaled a team-high13 tackles, while Ashlee Palmer finished with nine stops and a sack. Lamar Brumfield picked off a Smelley pass. Just one USC drive ended with a punt.
It is the first time South Carolina has defeated Ole Miss as a member of the Southeastern Conference.
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