Defense, running game lead USC to 38-3 win

Seven days after notching what many consider to be the biggest win of the Steve Spurrier era, the Gamecocks returned home on Saturday night to play host to S.C. State. In a game that USC hoped would help their offense, specifically the passing game, find a rhythm before next week's showdown at LSU, the 38-3 final score was more indicative of a strong running game and a dominating defensive effort.



"It was a struggle," said Spurrier when asked to comment on his team's passing game following the win over S.C. State. "I thought sometimes we had some guys open, but our quarterbacks had a tough time tonight. But anyways, it was a good win for us."

The Bulldogs struck first when safety Markee Hamlin intercepted Blake Mitchell on the second play of the game. S.C. State took over at Carolina's 12 yard line, and promptly went backwards, the beginning of a stellar night by the Gamecock defense. Aaron Haire kicked a 37 yard field goal to give the Bulldogs an early lead, and their only points of the game. The 3-0 deficit was the first time Carolina trailed this season.

USC punted on its next possession, which turned out to be one of the better offensive plays early on. Following a false start, S.C. State quarterback Cleveland McCoy dropped back to pass and threw short over the middle. The ball was picked off by defensive end Nathan Pepper, who rumbled 18 yards for a touchdown. Unfortunately, Pepper injured his knee on the play. The injury was called a left knee sprain, and Spurrier said Pepper could be out for the year, though a full evaluation will not be made until Sunday.

"I'm really, really proud of our defensive team," said Spurrier. "If we're going to have a good year, our defense has to keep playing extremely well. He just ran across the goal line, and he fell down. I thought he fell down so the guys could jump on him or something, but he hurt his knee. It was a big play by Nate, and Nate got a game ball.

The Bulldogs went three and out on the next drive, giving the ball back to the Gamecocks. Mitchell moved the ball down the field, and hit Moe Brown with a beautiful pass in the end zone, but, in what would become a recurring theme, Brown dropped the pass. Carolina had to settle for a 40 yard Ryan Succop field goal and 10-3 lead.

S.C. State was again forced to punt. Greg Wright got into the backfield and deflected the punt, which only went 15 yards to the Bulldog 41. With the great field position, the Gamecocks were able to capitalize, though not as quickly as Spurrier would have liked. On 3rd and 4, Mitchell threw a pass to Larry Freeman that was low, and Freeman failed to hold on to the ball. Spurrier sent the offense back out for fourth down, and Mitchell hit Kenny McKinley for a 12-yard gain. After a nice run by Cory Boyd, Mitchell hit McKinley again for a 12-yard touchdown, his first touchdown pass of the season.

Another three and out by the S.C. State offense led to another Bulldog punt. The snap was low, and Haire had to scramble and make a kick on the run. The kick went only 8 yards, setting up backup quarterback Tommy Beecher with good field position.

Beecher completed a 19-yard pass to Freeman, the lone highlight of his day. Beecher fumbled on the next play. An interception by Captain Munnerlyn gave Beecher a chance for redemption, but he threw the ball directly at the S.C. State safety, who somehow dropped the gift. Facing 3rd and 2, Beecher tried consecutive quarterback sneaks to pick up the first down, but got no push and turned the ball over to the Bulldogs. On his third drive, Beecher threw into double coverage for an easy interception.

"I thought Tommy knew how to sneak," Spurrier said, "but he went in straight up. He snuck in there with the ball in his belly. When you sneak you need to have to ball under your chin."

Mitchell came back in to run the offense, but did not fare much better. The Gamecocks made a first down, but Mitchell was hit as he started to throw, and S.C. State recovered the fumble. Once again, Munnerlyn tried to cover for his quarterback. The cornerback stripped Bulldog running back Jonathan Woods, and Darian Stewart fell on the ball. With only 38 seconds left in the half and no timeouts, Carolina tried to set up a hail mary attempt. Mitchell threw the ball to the end zone, but S.C. State came down with the ball to preserve the 17-3 score.

"At halftime, obviously, we had to basically tell our guys we are going to start running," said Spurrier. "We ran the ball very well, and that's what we had to do to win the game. We haven't passed the ball very well this year, so we have to see if we can get some guys more wide open, or pass block better or get some better throws."

The Bulldogs got the ball to start the second half, but again were unable to move the ball. Spurrier then did what he had promised and milked his backfield duo of Mike Davis (105 yards) and Cory Boyd (132 yards). Nine straight runs covered 78 yards, before Mitchell capped off the drive with a short touchdown pass to Davis for a 24-3 lead, one of only six second half pass attempts.

The teams traded interceptions on the next two possessions, before Spurrier went back to the ground. Boyd added a 29 yard touchdown run at the beginning of the fourth quarter, allowing the Gamecocks to start bringing in the reserves.

Freshman receiver Jason Barnes made a 34 yard catch to set up Mark Barnes for a 6 yard touchdown reception that capped the scoring at 38-3. Both had their first career catch in the game.

"We were hoping that they would get some balls coming their way," said Spurrier. "Mark Barnes runs a good little slant route, and I told him all week, as soon as we get down there I'm going to let you catch a touchdown on that. That's about the only smart call I had all night, besides all the runs."

Notes:

- Senior defensive back Brandon Isaac sprained his right shoulder, and could be out for the season, but a full evaluation will not be known until Sunday.

- Gurminder Thind, named the starting left guard shortly before kickoff, injured his foot when somebody stepped on it. His status for next week was not immediately available following the game.

- Pepper's defensive touchdown was the first interception returned for a touchdown since Johnathan Joseph returned a pick against Georgia in 2005.

- The teams combined for 10 turnovers. S.C. State had 4 (3 interceptions and 1 fumble) and Carolina had 6 (4 interceptions and 2 fumbles). Carolina also had 6 scores (5 touchdowns and 1 field goal).

- Mitchell now has 31 career touchdown passes, the fifth player in Gamecock history to surpass 30 touchdown passes. The other four are Steve Tanneyhill (62), Todd Ellis (49), Anthony Wright (38), and Tommy Suggs (34).

- The Gamecocks are 3-0 for the first time since 2001, when they started 5-0 on their way to a 9-3 record and Outback Bowl win.

- Cory Boyd's 132 yards (on 11 carries for an average of 12.0 yards per carry) were a career-high. This was the first time the Gamecocks have had two 100-yard rushers since October 20, 2001, when Derek Watson (105) and Andrew Pinnock (106) did so against Vanderbilt.

- Freshmen Patrick DiMarco, Jason Barnes, and Mark Barnes all notched the first reception of their career. JUCO transfer Larry Freeman also had the first catch of his career.

- Spencer Lanning kicked the final extra point, his first career attempt.


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