South Carolina survives ugly game to stay in SEC hunt
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The Gamecocks might be ready to compete with defending national champion Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in the SEC East, just like South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said they'd do during the preseason.Kentucky isn't so ready.
The No. 11-ranked Gamecocks routed the No. 8 Wildcats 38-23 in a matchup of SEC surprises at Williams-Brice Stadium on Thursday night. The mistake-prone Wildcats, who came into the game as one of only 14 unbeaten teams left in major college football, were undone by a comedy of errors, which led to two South Carolina touchdowns and thwarted two scoring drives of their own.
By the end of the rain-soaked night, a crowd of 76,220 had watched South Carolina beat a highly ranked opponent for the second time in six weeks and keep alive its hopes of winning an SEC championship, which it has never done before.
"We're just still in it," said Spurrier, who led Florida to six outright SEC titles and the 1996 national championship. "If we'd lost, we wouldn't have been in it very well. I think you can still win it with two losses, but not if it's two losses [against teams in your own division]. The rankings can sometimes be deceiving. Those guys who set the point spreads, they're a little bit more accurate. I felt we were a better team than Kentucky. I really did."
The Gamecocks showed they're much, much better than the Wildcats, who were looking to improve to 6-0 for the first time since finishing 10-0 when Paul "Bear" Bryant was their coach in 1950. Instead, Spurrier improved to 15-0 against Kentucky, which has lost to South Carolina eight consecutive times.
"Whether it was crowd noise or whether it was just nerves, I'm not sure," Wildcats coach Rich Brooks said. "We were not a well-oiled machine tonight."
Neither were the Gamecocks. After taking the game's opening kickoff, South Carolina had to use a timeout before its first offensive play. Spurrier said freshman quarterback Chris Smelley, who was making his second start in place of benched senior Blake Mitchell, didn't realize the 25-second play clock ran at the start of the game.
"He said he didn't know it was running," Spurrier said. "I said, 'Geez.'"
Still, Smelley outplayed Kentucky quarterback Andre' Woodson, who came into the game among the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy. Before playing South Carolina, Woodson had thrown 16 touchdowns and only one interception in 167 pass attempts. Earlier this season, the senior set an NCAA record by throwing 325 consecutive passes without an interception, dating back to 2006.
Woodson was far from perfect against South Carolina. He completed 23 of 40 passes for 227 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. South Carolina sacked Woodson three times and forced him to lose two fumbles that changed the game.
"We definitely made a lot of mistakes, especially me personally," Woodson said. "It's something we haven't been doing all year. I was pretty disappointed because we definitely thought we could compete in this game."
Woodson had more luck helping the Gamecocks score. In the first half, he lost a fumble inside the Kentucky 10, which defensive end Eric Norwood scooped up and returned two yards for a touchdown and 7-0 lead. The Gamecocks took a 10-3 lead after the teams traded field goals, then Kentucky tied the score at 10 on Woodson's 18-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jacob Tamme with 12:13 to go in the first half.
"This game was decided on our mistakes and South Carolina's alertness," Brooks said. "One turnover in the end zone. We fumbled a punt. Then the lateral, when [Woodson] was getting sacked and he threw it backwards. South Carolina scooped and scored. Then they scoop and scored on the other fumble. The differences in the game are turnovers and penalties." Woodson wasn't the only Wildcat playing with too many thumbs. Tailback Rafael Little, who ran for 135 yards on 25 carries, muffed a punt return and the Gamecocks recovered his fumble. When Kentucky trailed 24-13, Little dropped Woodson's handoff and had to fall on the football at the Carolina 4 on the last play of the third quarter. If Little had handled it cleanly, he might have walked into the end zone. Instead, the Wildcats settled for a 23-yard field goal.
Before losing to South Carolina, Kentucky had won 10 of 11 games. The Wildcats were plus-18 in turnovers in those games and hadn't lost the turnover battle in any of its previous 11 contests. Kentucky was minus-three in turnovers against the Gamecocks. "We gave the ball away a few times," Wildcats defensive end Jeremy Jarmon said. "It's frustrating, but things like that happen. When you're on the road, hostile environment, things happen."
The game began strangely for both teams. South Carolina drove to midfield on its first possession. On second-and-10, Smelly threw across the middle for freshman tight end Weslye Saunders, who caught the pass near Kentucky's 45. Saunders broke free and ran for the end zone for the game's first touchdown. But cornerback Trevard Lindley caught Saunders from behind near the 2 and jarred the football loose. The football rolled out of the back of the end zone for a touchback, giving Kentucky possession at its 20.
But two plays later, tackle Jonathan Williams and linebacker Cliff Matthews rushed Woodson as he dropped back to pass. Williams knocked the football out of Woodson's hand, and Norwood scooped up the fumble at the 2 and scored. "It was about being in the right place at the right time," Norwood said. "It was about covering the right guy. I came out and made the play."
Norwood became only the fourth player in NCAA history to score twice on fumble recoveries in the same game. SMU's Alvin Nnabuife last accomplished the feat against Nevada in 2004.
Spurrier might have found a quarterback that can make things happen, too. Against a Kentucky defense that came into the game ranked 103rd in the country in stopping the run, the Gamecocks couldn't run. They ran 23 times for 40 yards in the first three quarters.
So Spurrier decided to throw.
"We were just searching around for some ball plays," Spurrier said.
Smelley wasn't spectacular, but made plays when South Carolina needed them. He completed 17 of 30 passes for 256 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. He was sacked five times.
"I know I still made a lot of mistakes out there and I've still got a lot to improve on, but I did some good things and it's definitely something to build on," Smelley said. And the Gamecocks' fifth victory of the season is something else for Spurrier to build on. Now, he is halfway toward getting South Carolina to its first SEC championship game in Atlanta's Georgia Dome. In Spurrier's third season, the Gamecocks have already upset then-No. 11 Georgia on the road, lost at then-No. 2 LSU 28-16 and beat Mississippi State 38-21 in Week 5. After playing at North Carolina next week, South Carolina plays four straight SEC games. The Gamecocks get Vanderbilt at home, then play consecutive road games at Tennessee and Arkansas, before finishing conference play at home against Florida, Spurrier's alma mater. "It's way too early," Spurrier said. "The only reason I set that goal of winning the SEC was in case we got ourselves in position to do it. Our guys are starting to believe things are going our way. We've got to play them one at a time and see what happens."
At least the Gamecocks are still in the race. Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.