Game Ball to the Defense in 34-0 Shutout

Steve Spurrier gave a game ball to new defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson and his defense after they shut out NC State 34-0. He gave another one to new special teams coordinator Ray Rychleski, saying his guys played "super." Spurrier is his own offensive coordinator, and he didn't get a game ball. He and the offense have a lot of work to do before next Thursday's game against Vanderbilt.

The last time South Carolina and North Carolina State played a football game, the skies were filled with a hurricane driven rain, and the Gamecock defense played a stellar game, only to see their team lose 10-0 due to offensive and special teams miscues. In the week leading up to Thursday night's game, the weather forecast was once again for a storm driven rain, and once again the Gamecock defense was stellar. This time the only thing the sky was full of for most of three quarters was Tommy Beecher interceptions.

In his first start at quarterback, the redshirt junior threw four interceptions and completed 12 out of 22 passes for 106 yards. After Beecher left the game with a slight head injury, Chris Smelley came in, and he and Mike Davis led the team to 21 straight points and a respectable score over a ragged Wolfpack team that never should have been still in contention for a win that late in the game.

After the game, Spurrier said, "I appreciate our fans being patient with our offense. And fortunately, we have a pretty good defense to win games. NC State is a pretty good team, but we will be facing harder competition this season and we have a lot of work to do."

With Beecher making his first start at quarterback and Taylor Rank making his first start at running back, neither the Gamecock staff nor fans knew quite what to expect come game time. Rank gained only 23 yards on 11 carries in the first three quarters of the game. Senior running back Mike Davis, who didn't start for a number of reasons, including being punished for breaking into a team drink cooler, didn't fare much better for the first three quarters, gaining only 11 yards on seven carries, though he did score a touchdown on a one yard fourth down and goal play.

But it was all good once the fourth quarter started. Davis finished with 101 yards, the senior's fourth career game of at least 100, and he also caught two passes for 31 yards.

Beecher spent much of his time in the backfield getting hit, or running to avoid getting hit. Smelley went untouched during his time in there, and took advantage of the protection he received to complete a perfect five out of five passes for 92 yards and two touchdowns. Smelley thanked Beecher for running around and wearing down the Wolfpack defense. The Pack defenders were clearly worn out in the fourth quarter, and the superior conditioning of the Gamecocks showed as they were able to dominate the line of scrimmage in the final quarter. USC strength and conditioning Coach Mark Smith also received a game ball for his contribution to the win. Ironically, Smith played his college ball at NC State.

Spurrier had insisted since the conclusion of the spring game in April that Tommy Beecher was the starting quarterback, and that he "would be given every opportunity to go the distance." The distance lasted three quarters, ending after Beecher got his bell rung in a head on collision with a Pack defender on an unsuccessful third down play. He came back in to hold the ball for Ryan Succop, who kicked a field goal, but that was Beecher's last play of the game.

Now Spurrier once again has to endure a quarterback controversy, and admitted after the game that who will start behind center next week against Vanderbilt was "up in the air," and that the competition was again open after Smelley's strong play. "Chris Smelley did come in and play very well. We'll have to watch the tape and analyze it to see what in the world happened to Tommy," Spurrier said.

Smelley started six games last season, and he looked the part of a seasoned QB as he connected on touchdown passes of 20 yards to Dion Lecorn and 13 yards to Jared Cook. Smelley acknowledged that he and Beecher are good friends, but admitted when asked if he had earned the start next week, that "I'd like to play next week. It's the thing I've been working for. We'll see how it goes."

While the Gamecock offense took a while to get on track, the Wolfpack offense never did. Their starting quarterback Russell Wilson left the game with 4:09 left in the first half after a helmet to helmet collision with Jordin Lindsey that left him motionless on the field for several frightening minutes. After he was carefully loaded onto a medical cart, the ESPN camera zoomed in on his hand, which he lifted a few inches to wave, trying to indicate he was all right. It was the first indication to viewers that he was not paralyzed. The report from the hospital came back stating that he had suffered a grade three concussion, but was otherwise doing well.

The Wolfpack team was struggling even before Wilson left, but could not muster anything offensively after he was gone. The Pack finished the game gaining only 138 yards in 57 plays, averaging a paltry 2.42 yards per carry. For the game, they had a net 49 yards passing and 89 yards rushing. One of the keys to the USC victory was how well the Gamecock defense shut down the Wolfpack running game, which had been expected to be respectable. On the opening night of the 2008 season, it was not. NCSU ended last season with a 37-0 shutout by Maryland, and started this season in similar fashion.

In contrast, the final stats showed the Gamecock offense gained a balanced total of 369 yards, with 198 net passing yards and 171 net yards rushing. Rank finished the night with 36 yards rushing and a late touchdown, and Beecher had 25 yards on the ground. Sophomore Brian Maddox did not play until late in the game, but gained nine yards on two plays rushing.

The victory extended Spurrier's opening-week victory streak to 16 in a row. Perhaps more importantly, it put an end to a five game losing streak that Spurrier said earlier was tattooed on their foreheads as to how the team finished last season.

The head ball coach, as Spurrier likes to be called, had gained fame in the past for his quick trigger on pulling quarterbacks after poor play, but he stayed with Beecher longer than most fans in the stands were comfortable with, living up to his word to give Beecher every chance to succeed. When asked after the game if Beecher had not been injured, how much longer he would have stayed with his starter, Spurrier demurred a straight answer, stating, "Luckily I didn't have to make that decision."

Beecher looked shaky from the beginning. His first interception took place less than three minutes into the game, and on the next series, he took the first of his five sacks to end the drive. Fans watching on TV joined the press corps in the press box following ESPN's tight coverage of Spurrier's growing frustration with the play of his offense. The network's diligence was finally rewarded with a trademark tossing of his visor, this time joined by his headset and game notes after Beecher's third interception sailed over the outstretched hands of Moe Brown and into the waiting hands of State's Justin Byers.

All four interceptions thrown by Beecher were intended for Brown, who suffered all last season as well by not being able to haul in numerous deep balls thrown his way. Brown's patience was finally rewarded late in the game when Smelley hit him for a 34 yard gain deep in NCSU territory.

The Gamecock defense twice gift wrapped the ball deep in Wolfpack territory for their offensive counterparts. Eric Norwood recovered a botched snap at the Wolfpack 12 right before halftime that led to Ryan Succop's 29-yard field goal and the first points of the game. Then on the Wolfpack's second play after halftime, Carlos Thomas stepped in front of a Daniel Evans pass for an interception at the North Carolina State 9. Four plays later, Davis snuck one yard into the end zone. USC was four for four on fourth down conversion efforts, including Davis's touchdown that gave USC a 10-0 lead.

North Carolina State coach Tom O'Brien pointed to those two plays as the turning points in the game. "The game was fine until the last series; we fumbled the ball at the half, and then again on the first series of the second half." He said. "We let it get away from us. From there, it seemed to go downhill."

The official attendance for the game was announced as 80,616, but the empty spaces in the upper decks on a weeknight game indicated there were probably fewer than that.

The Gamecocks return to action next week for their second straight Thursday night match-up, traveling to Nashville for their first SEC game of the season against the Vanderbilt Commodores. Game time is 8 pm.

Gamecock Anthem Top Stories