Spurrier: This One Was For Our Fans

This season the Gamecocks and their coaches have experienced the pain of five close losses to ranked opponents, with victory each time just an agonizing play or two from their grasp. In the most important game in most fans' eyes, this time they made those key plays late in the game, clawing their way back from a 14 point deficit and emerging triumphant over arch-rival Clemson 31-28.

Coach Steve Spurrier showed he understood the importance of this game and this rivalry to South Carolina fans, stating, "We're dedicating this game to the fans. They've lived with a lot of crap over the years, a lot more than me and most of our players. We've only been here two or three years. We don't know this rivalry quite as well as our fans know it."

"Hopefully," he said, "whatever bad things that have happened to South Carolina football may be erased today. Sometimes a game like this can do it. Only time can tell."

If not for having to overcome three first-half interceptions, this game would not have been close, as the men in garnet and white rolled up 492 yards of offense on the vaunted Tigers defense, 160 more yards than they had surrendered in their previous worse loss of the season to Virginia Tech.

The score stood at 31-28 after South Carolina finally took a lead with 7:51 left in the game on a 35 yard field goal by Ryan Succop, but the outcome was in doubt until the final 13 seconds when Clemson kicker Jad Dean's 39-yard field goal attempt sailed wide left.

The Gamecock sideline and their fans exploded with jubilation as the clock ran out, celebrating the first win over the Tigers in five years, and Spurrier's first win at Carolina over Clemson.

The victory was USC's first win at Clemson since 1996, when the Tigers also missed a late field goal in that game. USC finished the regular season with a 7-5 record, ensuring them of an SEC-affiliated bowl game. It looks like a tender Tennessee Christmas for USC, as they will most likely go bowling in Nashville or Memphis, at the Music City Bowl or the Liberty Bowl, respectively.

"We're just glad we're not on the bowl bubble anymore," Spurrier said. "We have seven wins now and it isn't going to come down to us and Alabama. It doesn't matter where we go. We will just go where they tell us to play."

USC will not officially find out where it's going until next weekend after the SEC championship game has been played, and the SEC teams' bowl pairings are announced. USC has an outside chance at a berth in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl if the SEC places two teams in the five BCS bowls.

The impressive play by quarterback Blake Mitchell continued as he connected on 23-of-36 passes for 268 yards, putting him over 1000 yards in the last four games since he replaced senior Syvelle Newton in the second half of the Arkansas game.

Newton, now playing on defense, was in on the key defensive stop of the game with Jasper Brinkley, when they sacked Clemson quarterback Will Proctor for a 10-yard loss back to the CU 22, lengthening the distance of Dean's missed field goal.

Syvelle Newton acknowledges the Carolina fans that made the trip to Death Valley after Saturday's 31-28 win over Clemson.

"We moved the ball," Mitchell said. "They really only stopped us one time. We put up a pretty good number of yards. We hung in there. Things really didn't go our way. We had a lot of plays. We had to play a little bit today." Mitchell's play was aided by a strong effort by a much improved offensive line, which did not surrender a single sack the entire game. Mitchell did play much of the second half, despite bruised ribs he suffered after being forced out of the pocket and into a run.

Sidney Rice also continued the renaissance he has had since Mitchell's return, making eight catches for 103 yards. Rice earned his 10th career 100-yard receiving game, matching Sterling Sharpe for the school record in that category. He has reached the 100-yard receiving mark in both of his two career games against Clemson, as he made seven catches for 122 yards in last year's meeting with the Tigers. He also passed the 2000 yard mark in his career on Saturday.

Unlike last year when Rice was the only dependable receiver for Mitchell most of the time, Kenny McKinley has joined Rice to make a deadly tandem to throw to, and he caught five passes today for 66 yards. Senior Noah Whiteside made some critical catches as well, making his final game against Clemson a personal success with 3 catches for 42 yards. Freshman Freddie Brown rounded out the receiving corps today, making four catches for 30 yards.

Junior running back Cory Boyd helped settle the offense down in the first half after two early drives that were mostly passes were both ended by Mitchell interceptions. His solid running on both USC first half touchdown drives took the pressure off Mitchell and the passing game, allowing the air game to get back in sync. Boyd rushed for 70 yards in the first half and 106 yards on 16 carries in the game, despite wearing a soft cast for the second game in a row to protect a broken hand. He could be seen favoring the hand after plays late in the game.

"Hopefully, we can keep this streak going for years to come," Boyd said. "Our fans can finally say they've got something over Clemson. We knew from last year they didn't blitz much. Mike (Davis) and I knew we had to find the right lanes. Blake did an excellent job."

Boyd was openly crying as he left the field after the game, and raised his eyes to greet the cheering USC fans who lined the stadium rows above the players' exit. The triumph of the day was framed by his silently raising his hand in salute to the fans, his extended finger indicating who was #1 on this day.

The USC defense was staggered early in the game, giving up a long touchdown to Clemson speedster Jacoby Ford, who raced 76 yards for the first CU score of the game after Clemson got the ball on Mitchell's first interception. After USC answered with their first touchdown of the game, freshman running back CJ Spiller did even better, racing 80 yards for another Clemson score. But neither man had the longest play of the day for Clemson. USC drove deep into Clemson territory to the eight yard line as the half was about to end, but mammoth defensive tackle Clemson McKissic took a tipped Mitchell pass the distance, as the 295 pound McKissic lumbered 82 yards for the touchdown. The play was a dagger to the hearts of USC players, and fans, as an apparent halftime lead of 21-14 became a halftime deficit of the same score.

The defense played all but the first series without their senior leader Fred Bennett, who suffered a pulled hamstring during warm-ups.

After the two touchdowns by Clemson in the first quarter, the USC defense rallied, holding the potent CU offense to only one touchdown after the first quarter. Clemson's Spiller scored that touchdown on a 31 yard run around the left side for a touchdown with 9:48 left in the third quarter.

"Our guys never quit, they never gave up," Spurrier said. "We moved the ball and then all of a sudden we started stopping them. One thing about football, if one team keeps trying as hard as they can, you have a chance at something good happening. Our guys kept playing. I'm really proud of our team."

Boyd was not the only USC back who shined on this day. Mike Davis rushed for 69 yards and two second half touchdowns. He has played well in both games against Clemson he has played in thus far. Davis kept the first of the two drives alive by barely converting fourth-and-inches from the CU 37. That score pulled USC with in seven, 28-21.

On the next drive Clemson tight end Thomas Hunter fumbled after being hit by freshman defensive back Emanuel Cook and Jordin Lindsey recovered the fumble at the CU 34.

Four plays later, Davis break-danced in to the end zone to tie the game, getting upended at the one yard line but landed with his back arched on his feet and one hand, and then twisting into the end zone with 4:19 remaining in the third quarter.

The two touchdowns by USC to tie the game up occurred in a span of 1:55, swinging the momentum of the game back to the garnet and black sidelines.

USC could have ended any late game drama when defensive tackle Nathan Pepper grabbed a Will Proctor pass and headed for the end zone, but slowed down before crossing the goal line and was stripped of the ball by James. The ball bounced out of the end zone for a touchback, and back into Clemson's possession at the 20 yard line.

The USC defense made the difference in the fourth quarter, forcing Clemson to punt on its next two possessions. After the second punt, USC took over at its own 30 with 12:17 left in the game. USC's "Mr. Automatic," Ryan Succop, gave USC a 31-28 lead, and as it turned out, their margin of victory.

"It's a hard loss," Clemson head coach Tommy Bowden said. "You want to win every year so you don't have to experience what we're experiencing right now. Coach Spurrier is a good play caller. South Carolina didn't punt much. Their quarterback has been in the system for three years. They're a good team and we're a good team. They just had one play better than us."

Saturday's win over Clemson ensured that USC will finish the 2006 season with a winning record, marking Carolina's third straight winning season.

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