They Could Have Been A Contender...

South Carolina had the opportunity on a national stage to move up into the ranks of the SEC heavyweight contenders Saturday night. They had the defending champ LSU on the ropes after three quarters, and all they had to do was deliver the knockout punch. They let the champ hang around too long, and LSU rose like the champions they are in the final round and delivered a TKO to the Gamecocks, 24-17.

When Steve Spurrier took the helm at South Carolina, he promised to make them contenders in the mighty SEC, and stated his goal was to win an SEC championship. The Gamecocks have been standing when the bell sounded for the final round in all five of their SEC games this season, as all five have been decided by a touchdown or less, but for the third time in 2008 their legs gave out and they lacked the offensive line play and the running game necessary to win, coming off the fields as the hands of their opponents were raised in victory.

It was all there. The stage was set - a tenacious Carolina defense, a vocal crowd of 82,477 delirious fans, and a gutsy, talented freshman quarterback making his first start against the defending national champions. USC and LSU entered the final quarter tied at 17-17, and then LSU took control, limiting the USC offense to minus 7 yards in the 4th quarter and scoring the winning touchdown after a costly USC turnover gave them the ball. Close but no cigar has become a painful familiarity for the Gamecocks. Of the 19 losses in the Spurrier era, a dozen have been by a touchdown or less, and eight of them have been to ranked opponents.

Final score – LSU 24, USC 17.

Freshman Stephen Garcia got his first start at quarterback and played reasonably well, passing for 14-of-26 for 215 yards and a touchdown. But he wasn't biting when asked if he was happy with his own game despite a loss. "It's very frustrating," he said. "All the games we've played, we should have won. We didn't score a point in the second half, and that really tells it all."

Garcia clearly played his heart out, and his coach wondered aloud after the game that perhaps he shouldn't have put it all on his shoulders to win, instead relying on more running plays. "We tried to throw and tried to put it in the hands of a freshman quarterback starting his first game ever." he said. But the stats didn't lie in this game, with only 39 net yards gained in the entire game on 31 attempts. When asked about the struggling running game, Spurrier acknowledged the offensive line was the major issue. Left guard Jamon Meredith left early with a left ankle injury. Though Meredith returned, he was visibly gimpy the rest of the night, exacerbating a depth problem on the line already hampered with right guard Heath Batchelor sitting out on an indefinite suspension due to academic problems.

Spurrier didn't fault Garcia, saying he would start in the next game against Tennessee on November 1st. The Gamecocks have an off week next weekend.

The Tigers improved to 7-0 after a loss under head coach Les Miles. They were stomped the previous week at Florida, 51-21. LSU improves to 5-1 overall and 3-1 in the conference, while USC's four game winning streak is halted, and they drop to 5-3 overall and 2-3 in the SEC.

LSU entered the game with only nine sacks on the season, but they sacked Garcia six times, often for big losses. LSU defensive end Tyson Jackson who had two of the sacks said, "We did what our coaches asked us to do — run around and have fun out there. I think it paid off. Especially on defense, you just have to have fun."

Spurrier said he pointed out to Garcia after the game was over that the team had three unused timeouts. The head ball coach still has his famous fire on the sidelines. After the sixth sack, he drop-kicked his headset and had a few choice words waiting for Garcia when he reached the sideline, exhorting him to at least throw the ball away when LSU was blitzing. "I never checked out of it, didn't call timeout," Garcia said. "I got hit way too many times."

The young gunslinger didn't shy away from calling it like it was. "It was pretty rough," Garcia said. "They adjusted and started coming with a pretty big blitz and just brought more people than we could block." The game plan was to throw the ball, and without a running game Garcia was forced to keep passing. It cost them when LSU's last possession came from a late interception by Curtis Taylor with 3:57 left in the game. The Bayou Bengals used the possession off of the interception to wind out the clock until it expired. The game ended with LSU having advanced to the USC 1 yard line. The valiant Carolina defense prevented them from scoring another touchdown, but had no defense for a team in control of the clock, and LSU used a delay of game penalty on fourth down to their advantage to let time expire.

LSU's Lee said, "That last drive, we knew we had to watch the clock and be smart. Throughout the whole game, things were working for us. It was just a matter of executing it."

The USC defense was once again brilliant for most of the game. Injuries were a factor for the defense, as LSU took advantage of an absent Captain Munnerlyn on the winning touchdown drive. The key play of the drive was a 36 yard completion by Jarrett Lee to Demetrius Byrd, who beat sophomore Addison Williams down the left sideline on the play. USC defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson was quick to dismiss the absence of Munnerlyn and other defenders at times as a factor. Referring to the backups, he said "they're all SEC scholarship players," and said there was no excuse for the defensive lapses.

The winning drive went 83 yards in 11 plays and ground almost six and a half minutes off the clock. Charles Scott finished the drive with a short touchdown run, his second of the night.

The Gamecock defenders made available after the game to a man refused to blame the offense for the loss, choosing to share the blame for the close loss. Eric Norwood held his head high after the game, saying it was only a matter of time before USC won a big game like this. The Gamecocks had won two straight SEC matches that were close over Ole Miss and Kentucky, but those games were overshadowed by the enormity of this game. "We had this one," Norwood said. "We just didn't finish, and they did."

Garcia came off the mat bruised but ready to fight again. "We definitely should've won this game. We had our opportunities, and we just blew ‘em," he said. "But we're a pretty young team, and we'll bounce back." "It was a tough night, we had our chances," Spurrier said. "We all wish we could have come out a winner for our fans, but it didn't work out."

A telling statistic of the offensive woes was that the Gamecocks made it to LSU territory on nine of its 12 possessions, but could only manage 17 points, all of them in the second quarter.

The positives in the game that kept the game close for South Carolina are now mere footnotes, but are nevertheless important. Garcia used his quick feet on a number of occasions to the team's advantage. A 20 yard run by the freshman for a first down was the longest rushing play for either team. He worked the crowd into frenzy as he made his way along the sidelines after the run. He made a number of big throws, with Kenny McKinley and Jared Cook catching most of them. McKinley's 41 yard reception from Garcia was the young QB's longest pass play thus far. Weslye Saunders lone catch of the night was a 26 yard grab for a touchdown.

McKinley passed Zola Davis for second place on USC's all-time career receiving yards records, and extended his school record to 38 consecutive games with at least one reception. He is now only 75 yards behind Sterling Sharpe for the most receiving yards ever as a Gamecock.

Mike Davis is now eighth on the career rushing touchdown list at USC, with18, and is now 13th all-time with 2035 rushing yards. He needs to get 2267 to pass Cory Boyd and move into the program's Top Ten.

Norwood needs just one more tackle for loss to tie Andrew Provence's school record of 35. Emmanuel Cook tied his career high with 11 tackles, and Carlos Thomas's sixth career interception tied him with Stoney Woodson for the most of any current Gamecock player.

Gamecock Anthem Top Stories