South Carolina entered Saturday's SEC Championship game hoping to make history and win the program's first SEC Championship. History was made, but it was at the Gamecocks' expense as the Auburn Tigers broke several SEC Championship game records in a dominating 56-17 victory over the Gamecocks.
"We didn't play well," Gamecock head coach Steve Spurrier said. "Defensively we struggled. Offensively we had some opportunities in the first half - didn't get very many in the second half - just didn't execute. Give Auburn credit and I certainly believe Auburn can win it all."
The Tigers moved the ball at will all afternoon, amassing 589 total yards of offense. Cameron Newton - who was easily named the Most Valuable Player - threw for 335 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for 73 yards and two more touchdowns as the Tigers won their second SEC Championship game and seventh SEC title.
"Cam Newton not only can juke you and run, but he's an outstanding passer," Spurrier said. "We couldn't stop him."
Auburn won the toss and elected to receive the opening kickoff. On the second play from scrimmage, Newton connected with Darvin Adams on a play-action pass that went 62 yards all the way down to the Gamecock 14-yard line before being tackled from behind by Stephon Gilmore. Two plays later, Newton had all day to throw the ball and found a wide open Onterio McCalebb along the sidelines for a 12-yard touchdown to give the Tigers an early 7-0 lead just 1:40 into the game.
The Gamecocks wasted little time coming back. First down completions from Stephen Garcia to Alshon Jeffery and D.L. Moore sandwiched between two Marcus Lattimore runs moved the Gamecocks into Tiger territory. After Garcia gained 7 on a quarterback sweep, he found Jeffery again for a 12-yard gain down to the 20. On the next play, Garcia went play-action and found a wide open Patrick DiMarco down the middle of the field for a 20-yard touchdown to tie the game at 7-7.
Newton began to show why he's the most electrifying player in the country on Auburn's second drive. After being dropped for a loss to bring up a 3rd-and-12 from midfield, Newton eluded several Gamecocks in the backfield and broke a tackle before tripping up at the Gamecock 30. On another 3rd-and-long, Newton broke a tackle in the backfield and found Adams for a first down inside the Gamecock 20. Newton would finish the drive off himself with a 5-yard touchdown run up the middle to give Auburn a 14-7 lead.
After picking up a first down on a completion to Jeffery, the Gamecocks burned two timeouts when they were unable to get a play off, and were then forced to punt. Auburn wasted little time striking again. Gilmore was burnt for the second time of the quarter on a stutter by Adams for a 54-yard touchdown pass to give the Tigers a 21-7 lead after the first quarter. The 21 first quarter points for the Tigers were the most in SEC Championship game history.
After a three-and-out for the Gamecocks, Auburn took over again. Facing a 3rd-and-10, Newton scrambled to the outside and was hit by Cliff Matthews and Devin Taylor. The ball came out and Melvin Ingram recovered it at the Tiger 34. Two plays later, Garcia was hit by Nick Fairly as he released the ball and it was picked off by Daren Bates at the 24-yard line. A drop by Adams on third down ended the Tigers' drive and they were forced to punt for the first time.
The Gamecocks used the legs of Garcia and Lattimore to drive down the field, but Garcia was sacked on third down and Spencer Lanning's 51-yard field goal was wide left and the Gamecocks still trailed 21-7.
"I can't remember the last time he's missed two field goals in a row - in fact he usually makes all of them," Spurrier said. "We tried a 51-yard field goal he said he could make in the dome, but he just pushed it a little bit left."
After a facemask penalty moved the Tigers into Gamecock territory, Newton ran for two first downs and then found Adams for another. A holding penalty negated a first down inside the five and the Tigers had to settle for a Wes Byrum 36-yard field goal attempt. Byrum's kick was closer than Lanning's, but it banged off the right upright and was no good.
The Gamecocks took over on their own 20 with 2:02 left in the first half in hopes to draw a little bit closer. They would only need 1:46 to do just that. Garcia completed passes to Gurley, DiMarco, and Moore, Lattimore had a 16-yard run and a pass interference call moved the ball
to the Auburn 28. Facing 3rd-and-10 with no timeouts Garcia dumped it off to Lattimore over the middle, who took it all the way down to the 1-yard line. On the next play, Garcia found Jeffery on a quick slant for a touchdown to cut the lead to 21-14.
Jay Wooten made the mistake of squibbing the kickoff and Auburn returned it to the 41-yard line.
"It was a communication break-down," Spurrier said. "We told him to kick a line drive and he decided to kick a one-hopper. He told me he was trying to kick a line drive to get it to the return man. But it was only seven points. That didn't cost us the game."
Newton completed a quick pass to Emory Blake who stepped out at the 49. On the last play of the half, Newton rolled right and heaved it towards the end zone. The ball was tipped in the air by DeVonte Holloman and Adams came up with it with Gilmore lying at his feet for a 51-yard touchdown to give Auburn a 28-14 halftime lead. That would prove to be a crushing blow to the Gamecocks.
"At the time it looked like a big play," Spurrier said. "I don't know if it would have meant they beat is 49-17 instead of 56-17. It was a strange play. Every practice we work on our defensive end staying wide, but our end rushed inside. When he thew it I said 'Oh gosh, what's going to happen?' The guy scored on it."
With momentum firmly in Auburn's favor entering the second half, the Gamecocks got the ball first. Garcia converted a third down to Tori Gurley on an 18-yard completion over the middle. Garcia and Lattimore would each carry the ball to move the Gamecocks inside the Auburn 30, but the drive would stall. Lanning - who had been a model of consistency all year for the Gamecocks - was called on for a 42-yard field goal that he pushed wide right.
Auburn would continue to make big plays on the following drive as they went for the jugular. Newton eluded pressure and ran for 25 yards, then connected with Emory Blake for 40 yards to the Gamecock 2-yard line. After Dyer gained a yard on first down, Newton finished the drive off himself to give the Tigers a commanding 35-14 lead.With that touchdown rush Newton joined Florida's Tim Tebow as the only two quarterbacks in FBS history to rush and throw for 20 touchdowns in a season.
"We're not a great passing team," Spurrier said. "We haven't been a great passing team pretty much all year. If we get to where we have to come from behind two or three touchdowns it's just a struggle for us."
Facing 3rd-and-8 on the following possession the Gamecocks attempted a screen pass. The Tigers blitzed and the pressure got to Garcia too quick and the pass went right to Auburn's T'Sharvan Bell, who walked into the end zone from 10 yards out to cement Auburn's place in the BCS National Championship game and end all hopes of Carolina's first SEC Championship.
"(We) Tried to throw a little screen pass and I guess Stephen got hit while he was trying to throw and threw it to their DB and that almost put us out of reach," Spurrier said.
The Tigers would add on two more touchdowns in the fourth and Lanning connected on a 33-yard field goal for the final score.
"I apologize to the Carolina fans that came," Spurrier said. "That was the loudest pregame I've ever been to in my life and I've got to thank Gamecock fans. Unfortuately it didn't help our guys play. I wish we could have gave them a better game. Our fans are super and I appreciate all of them coming and maybe some day we'll come back to this thing and win it."
The Gamecocks are now 9-4 on the season and will have to wait until the bowl game to get that 10th win.
"We've had a good year - it wasn't the super year we all hoped for as Gamecocks - but if we win the bowl game we win 10 games to tie the school record for victories in a season," Spurrier said.
South Carolina will officially find out their bowl destination Sunday night at 9:00 on ESPN during the 2010-2011 BCS Bowl Selection Show though it has been rumored this week where the Gamecocks will likely be headed with a loss.
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