USC Defense Keys Historic Win Over Ole Miss

South Carolina needed to make a statement on national TV that they were legitimate contenders in the SEC. Steve Spurrier undoubtedly would like to ask more of his offense, but a 16-10 win where his USC defense absolutely dominated the Ole Miss offense for all but one series, the key plays made by special teams, and a crowd gone wild, all made a statement that the 2009 Gamecocks are for real.

South Carolina scored an historic win on a national stage Thursday night, beating a Top Five team at home for the very first time in front of a nationally televised audience. With no other games competing for the nation's attention, the Gamecocks win was front and center. The Steve Spurrier era after four seasons and a game against Georgia this season had been filled with game after game that were "close-but-no-cigar" losses, the team won a big, close SEC game that really mattered. It was also the program's first win over a Top Five team since 1981, when the Gamecocks went into Chapel Hill and defeated then #3 North Carolina 31-13.

Jevan Snead was a big part of why his Ole Miss team came into this game as the fourth ranked team in the nation. The South Carolina defense shutting him down, limiting him to seven pass completions, 109 yards passing and only one big play were the key reason his team left with a loss in the huge SEC matchup.

Eric Norwood set the tone for the defensive effort by stopping the first Ole Miss drive of both halves with sacks. The first one gave him sole possession of the all-time South Carolina sack record with 27; the second moved him up to eighth on the SEC all-time sack list. He finished the night with 10 total tackles, and 2.5 tackles for loss. He also partially blocked an Ole Miss punt in the fourth quarter, changing the field position dynamic for both teams.

Ole Miss Head Coach Houston Nutt said of Norwood, "We didn't block #40 (Norwood). You have to account for him. We knew that, but he still made it awfully tough for us. He's relentless."

The Gamecocks also limited Dexter McCluster, the Rebels' other big star on offense, to 89 yards rushing, and kept him contained when Ole Miss turned to him as their primary weapon late in the game with the game on the line.

The South Carolina defense limited Ole Miss to seven first downs and three points for three and a half quarters. On a crucial 4th and one play with 11:38 left in the game, Jevan Snead snuck for a first down to keep the drive and his team's hopes alive. He then hit Markeith Summers for a 45 yard touchdown and made a game of it with 9:47 left, pulling the Rebels within six points.

Gamecock fans had been here too many times before. The last five series by the Gamecock offense were far too brief appearances that resulted in three plays and out, allowing Ole Miss to be in a position to win a game they had trailed since halftime, but the USC defenders were relentless, and unlike so many times before, this USC team would not let a victory sail away into the night.

On the last Gamecock possession, after a delay of game penalty, USC faced a 3rd and 14 on their own 15 yard line. With exactly 5:00 left on the clock, the Gamecocks needed something good to happen. Instead, Stephen Garcia was sacked on his own seven yard line.

So it was time for one more defensive stand. Spencer Lanning gave USC some breathing room with a 54 yard punt that was rolled to the Ole Miss 39. Snead and the Ole Miss offense went to work with 4:03 left in the game. Dexter McCluster ran for 18 yards into Gamecock territory at the USC 43, and only took seven seconds off the clock on the first play of the drive. Snead hit freshman Pat Patterson for first down at the USC 32.

Darian Stewart, USC's other senior defender, who joined Norwood by spurning an early departure for the NFL and returned for his senior season, made two critical plays on the Rebs' last drive that preserved the Gamecock win. Stewart sniffed out a flea-flicker and hit McCluster for a three yard loss with 1:39 left, setting up third down. Then Cliff Matthews hit Snead from behind for his second sack of the game for a two yard loss. Ole Miss was down to its final play of the game, and got hit for a five yard penalty to make it 4th and 19 at the USC 41 yard line. Snead threw up a prayer to Shay Hodge, and Stewart knocked it from the heavens and answered the Gamecocks' prayers instead.

USC's free safety Chris Culliver said of his teammate's key play at the end of the game, "You know, he always makes plays like that. That was a big play that we knew he was going to make."

Of his team's defensive effort, Culliver said, "Our defense was just relentless, and we brought our best tonight."

His teammate, fullback Pat Dimarco, who scored the Gamecock's only touchdown, said of his team's finishing off the win, "We have had a new slogan since this year started: ‘New Carolina,' where we are going to finish off games. So tonight we proved that we can play with anyone in the nation. I'm proud of the entire team, and the entire organization for pulling this one out."

Spurrier was very impressed with one defensive statistic after the game. The Gamecocks held Ole Miss to only one out of 13 third down conversion attempts, and one out of four fourth down attempts.

Another key in the game was the loud and raucous crowd support. In the 1980's, Williams-Brice stadium was famous for the East side upper deck swaying when fans got excited, until it became such an issue that USC reinforced it to make it stop swaying. Though the Thursday night attendance was only 74,724, WIS veteran television reporter Rick Henry said he could not remember a louder crowd at Williams-Brice stadium. For the first time in this reporter's memory, the press box was shaking from the crowd's enthusiastic support of their team's defensive effort late in the game. I asked three different journalists who were all 25 year veterans of covering South Carolina football, and it was the first time any of them could ever recall the press box being shaken by the crowd.

South Carolina assistant head coach Ellis Johnson lauded the first half efforts of the USC offense, when the Gamecock's 22 offensive plays kept the defense off the field and rested. Quarterback Stephen Garcia completed the longest pass play of the Spurrier era at USC, a 69 yard pass to senior receiver Moe Brown. Symbolic of the offensive struggles on the night, after Brown hauled the pass in at the Ole Miss nine yard line, the Gamecocks had to settle for only three points on the play.

Garcia was injured on a quarterback sneak in the second quarter when a defender's helmet hit him in the ribs in his back. He was visibly in pain after the game, and admitted to the injury limiting his ability in the second half when the offense struggled the most. He will have a CAT scan done tomorrow to evaluate the injury. Garcia completed 16 0f 34 passes for 220 yards; more than double that of his heralded counterpart.

The USC red zone struggles continued. The last USC drive of the first half, USC was forced to kick a field goal on third down and three because there were only four seconds left in the half. First and goal from the nine yard line only yielded 3 points on USC's first drive of the second half. A Garcia fumble deep in Ole Miss territory also stopped a drive.

Travian Robertson left the game in the third quarter after spraining his right knee and was unable to return to the game. How serious the injury is or how long he will be out with the injury has not yet been determined.

Two weeks ago, the nation expected a defensive showdown between Georgia and Carolina, and it turned out to be an offensive fireworks show. Two weeks later, what was expected to be an offensive fireworks show between Ole Miss and the Gamecocks ended up as a defensive showdown. Ole Miss managed three points before the end of the first quarter, and USC managed six. The two teams combined for only 100 yards total offense between them in the first quarter, and the first half ended in a defensive barnburner, with a 6-3 USC lead.

Tori Gurley had his fourth touchdown catch of the season called back when USC was flagged for an ineligible receiver down the field.

South Carolina will give its players flu shots on Friday, and then send them home for a couple days off before they return for a normal practice week beginning Monday. They return to Williams-Brice stadium for the third of a four game home stand next Saturday against SC State at 7 pm. The game will be televised as part of the new SEC television package with ESPN on the ESPN Classic channel.

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