As Scott Wingo touched home plate to win the College World Series, Gamecock baseball play-by-play announcer Andy Demetra said the phrase that many Gamecock fans though they would never hear; "The wait is over! The Gamecocks are the National Champions!"
While Saturday's game against the Florida Gators wasn't for the National Championship, it was for the Eastern Division championship - again, something many Gamecock fans thought they would never see. After 19 years in the SEC, the wait is over. The Gamecocks will play for the SEC Championship as they rolled up 395 yards of offense and a stingy defense limited the Gators to 226 yards and one offensive touchdown in a convincing 36-14 win in Gainesville.
"God really smiled on the Gamecocks tonight" Gamecock coach Steve Spurrier said following the game. "We had a lot of things go our way early in the game and just a tremendous team effort. It was a good night for South Carolina and for the Gamecocks."
The game could not have started any better for the Gators or worse for the Gamecocks. After winning the toss the Gamecocks elected to kick. Jay Wooten kicked a nice one all the way to the goal line where Andre Dubose fielded it. Dubose took it 99 yards untouched to give the Gators a quick 7-0 lead and further energize an already rowdy crowd.
"They (defense) talked me into deferring and as soon as they ran it back for a touchdown I said ‘that's what you get for listening to one of your players,'" Spurrier said with a laugh.
After the Gator kick-off went out of bounds, the Gamecocks answered the touchdown. The offense moved down the field, however the Gator defense stopped Marcus Lattimore shy of a first down and forced Spencer Lanning to attempt a 49-yard field that he drilled through the uprights to get the Gamecocks on the board, trailing 7-3.
On the second play of the following Gamecock drive, quarterback Stephen Garcia tried for the big play to Alshon Jeffery, but it was underthrown and intercepted by Janoris Jenkins. However, instant replay showed that the ball hit the ground and the Gamecocks avoided the first big turnover of the game. Consecutive incompletions killed the drive and the Gamecocks were forced to punt. Lanning punted it 47 yards inside the Gator 10 where Jenkins returned it 11 yards to the 20.
The Gators brought in Trey Burton to play QB on the second offensive drive, but two nice tackles by the Gamecock defense and another Gator penalty forced the Gators to punt. Sanders was interfered with trying to make the fair catch, giving the Gamecocks the ball inside Florida territory.
The Gamecocks would use that field position to their advantage and get the ball in the hands of their playmakers on the next drive. Jeffery had two catches for 25 yards and Lattimore carried it three times for 21 yards, including a 7-yard touchdown run to give the Gamecocks a 9-7 lead, a lead they would not relinquish. Lanning's extra point attempt bounced off the left upright and was no good.
On the Gators' first play of the next drive, John Brantley hit Omarius Hines for a 22-yard completion and the first Gator first down of the game. After the completion, the Gamecocks held strong and forced another punt. Henry hit a beauty that was downed by Florida's Frankie Hammond, Jr. at the Gamecock 5-yard line.
The Gamecocks used the legs of Lattimore to get out of the hole, but the Gamecocks were forced to punt it away, giving it to the Gators and their third quarterback of the game, Jordan Reed. Reed rushed for a first down, but the Gators were held thereafter and forced to punt again.
The Gamecocks used an effective combination of passing and running on the next drive, moving it down to the Gator 30 yard line. Lanning was asked to kick another long one and he nailed it from 47 yards out to give the Gamecocks a 12-7 lead.
It appeared that the half would end like that, however, the Gamecocks forced another three and out and got the ball back at their 32-yard line. A 14-yard completion to Jeffery and an 11-yard completion to Tori Gurley - both on third down - followed by a 20-yard screen to Lattimore set the Gamecocks up in field goal range. Lanning was called on to attempt his third 40+ yard field goal, drilling a 41-yard kick to give the Gamecocks a 15-7 halftime lead.
"Spencer Lanning kicked super tonight," Spurrier said. Lanning finished 3-for-3 on field goals and 3-for-4 on extra points.
The Gamecocks picked up right where they left off to open the second half. Garcia converted on two third-and-long situations - a 19-yard completion to D.L. Moore and a 12-yard completion to Gurley - to move the Gamecocks into Gator territory. Lattimore finished things off with an 18-yard run and a 21-yard touchdown run to give the Gamecocks a 22-7 lead.
After the two teams traded several punts, the Gamecock defense finally came up with the big, game-changing play. Brantley's pass over the middle intended for Hines was a bit high, with Hines deflecting it up in the air and into the arms of Gamecock defensive back Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore returned it nine yards to the Gator 28-yard line.
"The defense was unbelievable," Garcia said. "They shut them down for most of the game."
Facing third-and-goal from the eight, Garcia called his own number on a draw. He collided with Florida's Will Hill at the three and fought his way into the endzone for the back-breaking touchdown. Lanning's extra point gave the Gamecocks a commanding 29-7 lead early in the fourth quarter.
"That touchdown I think was the big play of the game to kind of seal it a little bit," Garcia said.
The Gator offense finally showed a little bit of life on the following drive. Chris Rainey ran it 25 yards on the second play, followed by Brantley finding a wide open Burton for 17 yards down to the Gamecock 15. However, as had been the case all night, the Gamecock defense came up with the big play with Brantley being sacked by Devin Taylor on fourth down that ended any hope of a Gator comeback. Florida would add a late Rainey touchdown and Lattimore would score his third touchdown in the final minutes to close out the scoring.
"He was breaking tackles left and right," Garcia said. "I'm glad I'm on offense and he's on our team. It would be frustrating to watch him run up and down the field (on opposing teams)."
Lattimore rushed for a career-high - and freshman school record - 212 yards on 40 carries.
"I saw Marcus earlier this week," Spurrier said. "I said, ‘you got about 40 carries in you?' and he said ‘yes sir.' That was the plan and that was how we beat them."
Lattimore now has 964 yards rushing on the season, 36 yards away from becoming the first Gamecock since Derek Watson to rush for 1,000 yards. His three touchdowns gave him the single-season freshman record for touchdowns in a season, and tied him with Harold Green for the all-time record with 16.
"that guy right there is something else," Garcia said, pointing to Lattimore. "We've won the games when we've been able to run the ball successfully. You can't say enough about the o-line and Marcus running. We're very fortunate to have him."
Meanwhile, despite harsh criticism from Spurrier and many Gamecock fans, Garcia has led this team to a new level.
"Unbelievable," Garcia said. "It's hard to put into words what the team is feeling in there. We came a long way - especially after last week. The way we came out tonight was unbelievable."
The Gamecocks will have revenge on their minds when they face a familiar foe in the championship game. Earlier this season, the Gamecocks dropped a 35-27 contest to Auburn, who is currently undefeated after beating Georgia on Saturday and is slated to play in the BCS Championship game.
"Our goal is to win the game in Atlanta and that's still our goal and we have a chance," Spurrier said. "Obviously it won't be easy against Auburn, but who knows? If the ball bounces your way."
Spurrier is quick to point out that the Gamecocks have some unfinished business to handle before they think about the rematch with Auburn. The Gamecocks host Troy next week in the home finale before traveling to the upstate to finish the season against Clemson.
"We're still not the SEC Champs. We've won our division and we'll play Auburn in Atlanta, but we've got some things to do before we play Auburn."
Troy can wait until Monday. For now, Gamecock players and fans alike can revel in the fact that the South Carolina Gamecocks are finally SEC East champions!
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