As the final seconds ticked off the clock Saturday night in Gainesville, South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier received a gatorade bath and was carried to mid-field on the shoulders of his players. Spurrier had just achieved one of the goals he set for himself when he came to Carolina in 2005, winning the SEC East for the first time in program history.
"It was a wonderful weekend last week for the Gamecocks," Spurrier said Tuesday at his weekly press conference. "For us to get a division championship for the first time was special for all Gamecocks."
While the Gamecocks have enjoyed some limited success on the football field over the past 41 years, they had not won any type of conference championship since winning the ACC in 1969. Spurrier knew that when he took the job, and many would say it was one of the main reasons that brought him to Columbia.
"I really wanted to come to South Carolina one reason because they had not won much since 1969," Spurrier said. "Everything was out there to do for the first time. It was neat to accomplish that. Our guys played well."
2010 will certainly be a year to remember for the Gamecocks. Not only did Carolina win the SEC East, but they beat the big three in the division - Georgia, Tennessee, and Florida - for the first time. Throw in the first victory over a #1-ranked team in Alabama makes it a special season in and of itself.
"Winning the east is certainly big because we've never done it, but bigger is beating Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and Florida in the same year," Spurrier said. "For us to do that (at South Carolina) is also something very special."
Spurrier credits the seniors for their leadership during the offseason as part of what this team has accomplished this season. The Gamecocks had by far their best showing in voluntary preseason work outs in the Spurrier era, something that is no coincidence in the success of the team.
"They're guys with wonderful attitudes," Spurrier said of the seniors. "The first ones to come to mind are our captains Patrick DiMarco, Cliff Matthews, Ladi Ajiboye and Spencer Lanning. It's a great group. The commitment level through the summer and spring has been good. (Strength Coach) Craig Fitzgerald has been happy with the attitude of our entire team. Give those guys a lot of credit mainly for the commitment and attitude they've had."
Another change in this group has been the decisions to stick around instead of moving to the NFL early, something that has haunted the Gamecocks in the past as recent as last season.
"We have a lot of other fourth year guys that want to come back next year," Spurrier said. "Travian Robertson and Rodney Paulk want to come back. That's a compliment that guys want to stay around as long as they can now."
Winning the SEC East was not the only goal the team set before the season. There are goals that are still out there, beginning this week when Troy visits on senior day.
"We're still pushing right now," Spurrier said. "We're still pushing to see how many wins we can get this year and see what we can accomplish. We're in the latter part of the season and most of our goals are still out in front of us."
While the Troy Trojans are just 5-4 on the season they are still a dangerous team under long time head coach Larry Blakeney. The Trojans have put up 30 points in all but one game this season and nearly pulled off a huge upset against Oklahoma State in Stillwater before falling 41-38.
"Troy is a pretty good team," Spurrier said. "They're 5-4. Larry Blakeney has been there 20 years and has a .700 win percentage. They do a good job there. We have to play well if we expect to beat Troy. Their quarterback, Corey Robinson, and two big time wide receivers. One of those (receivers) is supposed to be a high draft pick."
Robinson has thrown for 2,553 yards this season - 284 yards per game - and 18 touchdowns with a 61% completion percentage. His favorite target has been senior receiver Jerrel Jernigan, who has 58 catches for 617 yards and four touchdowns.
With his 40 carry, 212 yard performance against Florida, freshman running back Marcus Lattimore has been mentioned as a possible Heisman candidate, despite missing the second half of the Kentucky game and the Vanderbilt game due to injury.
"Marcus is a special young man as we all know," Spurrier said. "Not only his ability to play the game and run the ball, but catch passes and block. A lot of people don't realize he threw the block that sprung Stephen (Garcia) on the goal line. Marcus can do it all."
Lattimore is second in the conference in rushing with 964 yards (107 per game) and touchdowns (14), trailing on Auburn's Cam Newton with 1297 yards and 17 touchdowns. Spurrier says Lattimore will factor much more into the game early on against the Trojans than he did against Arkansas two weeks ago.
"We'll come out and give the ball to Marcus Lattimore and start running," Spurrier said. "We're not going to throw three incompletions and move on. I want to tell our fans that we'll come out running the ball and try to win a game Saturday.
"He's a very humble young man," Spurrier continued. "Wonderful mom and dad. I see his mom after every game as we're leaving the ballpark on the road. Certainly she was one of the happiest of all the happy Gamecocks last week. Marcus doesn't say a lot, but his teammates obviously love him. He's just a big reason we are where we are, no question. Without him running the ball I don't know what our record would be right now."
Patrick DiMarco has become a fan favorite. The senior fullback/tight end from Florida returned to the stadium that he sat in many Saturday's while growing up. While he did not touch the ball during the game, he made his presence known and earned a game ball in the 36-14 victory.
"We gave Patrick a game ball," Spurrier said. "He played 74 offensive plays against Florida. Looking back I saw he pulled defensive ends several times where Marcus runs around the middle. One or two touchdown runs were the same play. Patrick has played very well. Certainly being from Florida - his dad and uncle went there - it was a special night for Patrick DiMarco."
Perhaps no one other than Lattimore had more of an impact in the game than Spencer Lanning. Lanning banged an extra point off one of the uprights, but knocked down three huge field goals in the first half. After the Gators ran the kick back for a touchdown, Lanning was called on to try a 49-yard field goal. He nailed it with room to spare to answer the touchdown and get the Gamecocks on the board. Lanning then hit two field goals - one from 47, one from 41 - in the final 4:37 to give the Gamecocks a 15-7 halftime lead.
"I'm proud of not only Marcus Lattimore but (also) Spencer Lanning," Spurrier said. "Making those three field goals - 49, 47, 41 - that's big time kicking in a big time atmosphere. That was the most special part of the game, was that our guys really played and our star players played like stars."
Improving Pass Defense
After giving up 303 yards passing to Ryan Mallett in a 41-20 loss to Arkansas, the Gamecock pass defense showed improvement against John Brantley and the Gators. The Gators only had 191 passing yards - many coming with the game well in hand - and more importantly did not have any blown assignments that resulted in big plays.
"Coach (Ellis) Johnson and Coach (Lorenzo) Ward, we've been working hard on pass defense," Spurrier said. "I know it didn't show against Arkansas much, but it did show the other night. We're still not intercepting a lot of balls we get our hands on. Hopefully we can do that when we need to in some big games coming up as we go down these last three. We've changed our practice a little bit where we go first group against first group a lot more than we used to. Our pass defense looked better last week and we had an excellent pass rush. If we'll make a strong finish we have to have a good pass defense."
Coaching the Same
Spurrier has gotten a lot of credit for ‘coaching them up' in the wins over Georgia, Alabama, and Florida.
"I pretty much coach the same way every week," Spurrier said. "I know with the performance of our team some of you think I had a great week of coaching. I coached just the same against Arkansas and we played like crap. It's up to the players. Our guys were ready to play last week. We had a live dressing room and locker room. The week before we were a bunch of dead players and it didn't work out. As coaches we try to stay consistent."
Spurrier says he'll coach the same against Troy as he will any of the other games.
"We'll coach as hard as we can against Troy," Spurrier said. "Hopefully our players will want to come to the ballpark and play for our seniors and so forth. We changed a few things in practice (last week). We didn't even talk about the Florida team until Tuesday. We just worked out a bit on Monday and tried to correct some mistakes. We change occasionally, but we're pretty consistent the way I coach and our coaches coach each week."
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