Special teams come up big in win over MSU

Since they day he first walked on campus, Steve Spurrier has been begging his players and coaches to somehow make a play on special teams. Last season, he added Fred Chatham to the coaching staff to try to boost the special teams, but with little success. This season, Spurrier hired Shane Beamer to assist Chatham, hoping Shane could bring some of his father Frank's "Beamer Ball" to the Gamecocks.

There were a few positive signs last week against LSU. Cliff Matthews tipped a Tiger punt, the first time in seven years the Gamecocks had blocked a punt. Later on, freshman Chris Culliver had a 44 yard kickoff return, showing the ability everyone expected to see from the highly touted newcomer.

Those plays were just a warm-up for the Homecoming game against Mississippi State. The special teams came up with several big plays that allowed Spurrier to walk into his post game press conference and proudly say, "We can say special teams helped win a game around here now."

The play of the game was a blocked punt late in the third quarter. Eric Norwood knifed through the Mississippi State line to block Blake McAdams' punt. Ranzino Valentine pounced on the loose ball, and one play later Chris Smelley hit Kenny McKinley for a 27-yard go ahead touchdown. From there, Carolina shut down the Bulldogs' offense, as they cruised to a 38-21 win.

"The blocked punt changed everything," said Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom. "At that point it felt like we had the upper hand down there on the field, and that changed everything. The people in the stands woke up, their players got some extra juice, and the tides really turned on us at that point."

Beamer said the coaches had identified a weakness in the Bulldogs' punt protection that would allow Norwood to get matched up one-on-one with the snapper, and USC tried to take advantage of it. The first time they came after the punt, Mississippi State recognized the defense and changed the protection. On the second try, everything came together.

"We'd been working at it all week," said Beamer. "Eric did a great job. Eric's one of those guys that's got a knack for blocking a kick. He beat the snapper, and we were able to take advantage of it.

"I think Coach Spurrier was getting a little frustrated that something good hadn't happened [on special teams], and the kids needed it. They worked hard, and it was a big play for us. I feel like we needed the momentum swing, and it definitely swung the momentum in our favor. They were running the ball up and down on us at that point, and we needed to swing the momentum on that one."

Norwood quickly beat the blockers, so he had plenty of time to compose himself as he went for the block. As he ran through the line, he said later that he was thinking, "Just make sure I don't hit the punter if I miss it."

"Once I freed the center and nobody came to pick me up, I just went and tried to make a play," he said. "I think it turned the momentum of the game, and gave the momentum to us."

"I thought I hit it pretty good," said McAdams. "Then I heard a second thump, and that's usually not a good sign."

Of course, there is more to special teams than just blocking kicks. There were a few negative plays, including a couple of surprising miscues by kicker Ryan Succop, who missed a field goal and shanked a punt. There were also two penalties that brought back long punt returns, including one that went for a touchdown. However, on the positive side, the Gamecocks actually managed to get a pair of long returns, as well as a couple of nice kick returns by Culliver. Unfortunately, Culliver also drew Beamer's ire when he was called for one of the penalties on a punt return.

"[Culliver] got that holding penalty on the second punt return," said Beamer. "I wasn't happy about that. He's done a good job on kickoff return. We didn't block well for him on the first return, but he did a great job of popping one up in there. He's got a knack for just putting his head down and going, and hitting it up in there.

"[The penalties] drive you crazy. We got two of them on returns. I've got to look at the tape, but I don't think either one of them had to block. They were at the point of attack where their guy is not going to make the tackle. All you have to do is get between him and the punt returner and shield him. We'll learn from that, and they're young, and we did some good things. I told [Culliver] that he didn't need to do that, and you're in great shape and you did a great job of blocking. He's not going to make the tackle. Captain's got to be good enough to make somebody miss back there. Captain will make that guy miss even if he's free."

Munnerlyn knew there was a penalty on his second big return, but not on the first.

"I didn't know until I hit the end zone," he said. "On the second one, when I saw the flag I really just thought "Aw, man, I was going to take that one the distance." I'll probably get in trouble for just running out of bounds."

Then, Munnerlyn said something that should get the Gamecock fans and Coach Spurrier excited.

"It hurts [to have returns called back], but I feel like in the future, there will be more to come."

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