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A welcome romp

USC offense unstoppable in blowout

By Joseph Person
The State
Published: November 19, 2006
As he has done often this season, USC coach Steve Spurrier sat in front of a microphone and talked about what could have been.

Spurrier was not describing another close loss, but lamenting where the Gamecocks might be if they had enjoyed a few more games like Saturday's 52-7 romp against Middle Tennessee.

After spotting the Blue Raiders a touchdown on the first play, USC rattled off 52 unanswered points and cruised to its most lopsided win in 11 years to become bowl eligible before a Williams-Brice Stadium crowd of 70,442.

USC (6-5), which snapped a three-game losing streak, has dropped four games to top-15 teams by a total of 21 points.

But after surrendering a 73-yard touchdown reception 30 seconds into the game, the Gamecocks dominated every phase to spoil the homecoming of Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill, the Gamecocks' recruiting coordinator in 2004-05.

It was USC's largest margin of victory since a 77-14 win against Kent in 1995 and its highest point total since a 52-14 win against Vanderbilt that same season.

Gamecocks quarterback Blake Mitchell continued his late-season surge by setting career highs with 388 passing yards and four touchdown passes. And with each touchdown and subsequent extra point, Spurrier was reminded of last week's 17-16 loss at Florida, when the Gators blocked two field goals and an extra point to thwart the Gamecocks' upset bid.

"Hopefully some day we can have some games like this against SEC teams," Spurrier said. "That's the hope."

Despite the loss, Middle Tennessee (7-4) can clinch the Sun Belt Conference title and a New Orleans Bowl berth by beating Troy next week. Spurrier said he would have swapped places with Stockstill on Saturday if it meant the Gamecocks were bound for the SEC championship game.

Instead, USC will head to Clemson needing a victory to finish with a winning record and guarantee a spot in one of the SEC's eight bowls. The Gamecocks likely would go to the Liberty or Music City Bowl by defeating Clemson, but could be left out entirely if they are 6-6.

"It would have been nice being at the big thing this year the SEC championship game. But we fell short of that," free safety Syvelle Newton said. "We'll get a chance to go to a bowl game. We can't be picky with the season that we had."

The Gamecocks got off to an inauspicious start Saturday as Raiders tailback Desmond Gee ran past Stoney Woodson for a 73-yard touchdown catch and a 7-0 lead before the crowd had settled in. Receiver Kenny McKinley then fumbled after a big hit on USC's first drive.

But it was all USC from there. The Gamecocks scored on eight of their final nine possessions and never punted ח a first in Spurrier's two seasons at USC.

With Mitchell (21-of-28 passing) completing throws to nine receivers, the Gamecocks piled up the most passing yards (391) and total yards (545) of the Spurrier era, while matching their season high with 25 first downs.

In 10 quarters since replacing Newton at halftime of a 26-20 loss to Arkansas, Mitchell has completed 73 percent of his passes for 876 yards and six touchdowns. The redshirt junior has not thrown an interception since his fourth-quarter pick against the Razorbacks.

"I feel a lot more confident now than I did last year," Mitchell said. "Things are going well for the offense. If we just keep putting things together, no telling what can happen."

USC's defense also played well, forcing eight punts and allowing its fewest yards (200) since a season-opening shutout of Mississippi State. After Gee's touchdown catch, the Blue Raiders managed 127 yards over the final 59-plus minutes.

But Stockstill was not too upset.

"The Troy game is a lot more important to us," he said. "That's not to downplay anything, that we didn't try or anything like that. ... I think since we have something to play for next week, our guys will bounce back and be ready to play."

USC also has something to play for next week at No. 25 Clemson a bowl berth and a chance to win its first game in six tries against a ranked opponent. While Saturday was nice, Spurrier acknowledged that it did not prove much.

"We wish we'd beat the big guys, but we haven't," he said. "We've got one last chance to beat a real good team."

Reach Person at (803) 771-8496.
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"Hopefully some day we can have some games like this against SEC teams.  That's the hope."  ~Steve Spurrier (on his team)