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Despite the final score, the shootout many expected to see never quite materialized.
Defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix came up with a defensive gameplan that rattled Kentucky's Heisman hopeful quarterback Andre Woodson. The Gamecocks brought pressure from different angles and had Woodson sidestepping defenders much of the night. On the other side of the ball, when quarterback Chris Smelley struggled reading the defense, Steve Spurrier decided to pound away at the suspect Wildcat defense and give Smelley a variety of easy throws to spread the field.
The game started slowly, as both teams came out with high energy, but had to feel each other out before they figured out how to make plays. With a light rain falling, Carolina had to call a timeout before its first offensive play, and their first two snaps resulted in a loss of yards. Smelley completed a pass to Freddie Brown, the first of two third down conversions on the drive. With the ball on the 50, Smelley hit tight end Weslye Saunders on a drag route. The big freshman rumbled 50 yards, but right before he crossed the goalline, Kentucky's Trevard Lindley knocked the ball loose and out of the end zone for a touchback.
After a run on first down, Woodson dropped back to pass. Cliff Matthews and Jonathan Williams sandwiched the quarterback. Williams knocked the ball loose, and Eric Norwood grabbed the ball at the 2-yard line and fell across the goalline for a 7-0 lead.
The teams traded punts on the next two possessions, and then traded field goals on the next two. In the second quarter, with the exception of one play, Woodson looked like a Heisman candidate. He dodged rushers and picked apart the Gamecock secondary on consecutive drives. Facing 3rd and 8 on the first drive, Woodson lofted a pass to Jacob Tamme in the back of the end zone for a 10-10 tie. The next time down, he was not so lucky. Facing pressure, Woodson rolled right and floated a pass toward Tamme. He did not see Captain Munnerlyn behind the play, and Munnerlyn stepped up and picked off the pass in the end zone, just the second time this season Woodson has been intercepted. He returned the ball to the Carolina 38 before being tripped up. Carolina was unable to move the ball, and the teams again traded punts.
With 4:17 left on the clock, the Gamecocks put together a masterful drive. Cory Boyd ran for a 24 yard gain and Smelley found the open receivers as they marched down field. With 1st and goal on the 3, Mike Davis took the handoff and did what he knows best. He leapt into the air and across the goalline to give the Gamecocks a 17-10 lead at halftime.
Kentucky got the ball to start the second half. The Wildcats had scored touchdowns on their first possession of the second half of their first four games. They quickly moved the ball into Carolina territory before disaster struck. Casper Brinkley got pressure off the edge. Before he got Woodson down, the quarterback tried to swing the ball out to Rafael Little in the flat. The ball was too low for Little to handle, but more importantly, was a backwards lateral. With Little on the ground, Norwood swooped in and picked up the ball. Escorted by Brandon Isaac, the lineman rumbled downfield for his second touchdown of the game, and gave Carolina a 24-10 lead.
"The game was decided on our mistakes and South Carolina's alertness," Kentucky coach Rich Brooks said after the game. "The differences in the game are turnovers and the penalties. The South Carolina defense forced us into some…[plays that] were uncharacteristic of how we play."
The rest of the quarter the Gamecock offense would have been better off taking a knee on each snap. They ran just nine plays that lost 15 yards. Smelley struggled reading the defense and making the right plays despite being handed a turnover on the 50 yard line. However, the defense held strong and limited Kentucky to a field goal, and a second field goal on the first play of the fourth quarter.
"It was an interesting game offensively. We stumbled and bumbled around a lot and went backwards. [We went] three and out three times to start the second half, and then the next two had touchdown drives," said Spurrier.
The Gamecocks went into the fourth quarter determined to move the football. Davis pounded the Kentucky defense, opening up the passing lanes for Smelley. Smelley hit Jared Cook on a crossing route for 21 yards, and then made his best pass of the night when he avoided a blitz and hit Boyd on the run for 16 yards. A few more rushes by Davis set up a seven yard play-action pass to fullback Patrick DiMarco for his first career touchdown.
Woodson answered for Kentucky, but it was clear the pressure was getting to him. The Gamecocks disguised their blitzes well, and were able to get occasional pressure on Woodson. The Wildcats began throwing screens to counteract the Carolina pass rush, wear down the defense, and get into the red zone. On second down from the six, Woodson audibled and threw a strike to Steve Johnson for the touchdown with just under seven minutes to play.
With the lead cut to eight, an exhausted defense, and a struggling offense, the Gamecocks desperately needed to put together a solid drive. The threat of the run enabled Carolina to set up the play-action pass. On second down, Smelley play-faked and found true freshman receiver Dion Lecorn for 24 yards. On 3rd and 3, Spurrier called a pass play with only one receiver. Smelley rolled right with max protection, and drilled the ball to Kenny McKinley for the first down. Two plays later, Smelley swung a pass left to Boyd in the flat. Boyd raced down the sideline, outrunning defenders into the endzone to ice the game at 38-23.
"The guys really played super," said Spurrier. "I'm proud of the entire team. It was a wonderful team victory, everyone contributed. Sometimes I think we asked [Smelley] to check a little too much. We just started calling plays and tried to guess the coverage."
The Gamecocks now have a long week before they travel to Chapel Hill to play North Carolina next Saturday, and Spurrier thinks the players will enjoy it.
"A lot of the players are going home," he said. "They'll be strutting on their high school sidelines this Friday night."
Player of the Game: Eric Norwood
Several players deserve mention, but Norwood had what Spurrier called an All-American quality game. Norwood spent almost as much time in the Kentucky backfield as Woodson. He finished with 5 tackles, 2 pass deflections, 1 tackle for loss, 1 pressure, and two touchdown returns, a school and national record. "It's the first time I've ever had a defensive player score two touchdowns," said Spurrier. "That was some game he had."
Down 7, Kentucky got the ball to start the second half. In the third quarter the Gamecocks ran just 9 plays for -15 yards, but managed to expand their lead. Kentucky drove the ball to midfield, but Brinkley pressured Woodson, who tried to throw to Little in the flat. The pass was a backwards lateral, and Little could not handle the errant toss. Norwood picked up the loose ball and ran down the sideline for a 53 yard touchdown. Now trailing 24-10, the Wildcats were forced to play catch-up the rest of the night.
- Norwood is just the fourth player in NCAA to return two fumbles for a touchdown.
- Linebacker Melvin Ingram was the leading kick returner for the Gamecocks as Kentucky kicked away from speedy Chris Culliver. Ingram finished with 3 returns for 59 yards.
- What a difference a quarter makes. In the third quarter, Smelley was 0-3 with 2 sacks for -16 yards. In the fourth quarter, he went 6-6 for 102 yards and a touchdown with no sacks.
- Early in the fourth quarter, Cody Wells made a play that got his teammates fired up and made his mother cringe. He raced downfield on a kick return and made an open-field tackle - without his helmet.
- Kentucky entered the game +7 in turnover margin this year. They were -3 against the Gamecocks. The Wildcats also entered the game averaging over 46 points per game, but Carolina held them to half that.
- Injuries: Gerrod Sinclair and Web Brown suffered left knee sprains. Freddie Brown has a sprained right ankle.
- The attendance on Thursday was officially listed as 76,220.
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