Offense sets several program bowl records
By Joseph PersonMEMPHIS, Tenn.
South Carolina's latest bowl trophy has a crack in it, but it will look perfect to a legion of fans who have suffered
with the Gamecocks through a tough bowl history.
When USC returns to Columbia today with the Liberty Bowl trophy ח
a replica of the famous, cracked bell in Philadelphia Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier is certain he will find a place for it.
got plenty of room in our trophy case," Spurrier said.
But the Gamecocks took a step Friday toward filling it.
quarterback Blake Mitchell outdueled Houston's record-setting passer and the Gamecocks outscored the Cougars 44-36 in an offensive
shootout that most predicted.
USC (8-5) enjoyed its best offensive showing in a bowl game and improved its bowl record
to 4-9. The Gamecocks finished the season with three consecutive wins for the first time since 1973.
"Eight wins is
good for us right now (after) seven last year," Spurrier said. "We'll shoot for nine or 10 next year."
senior quarterback Kevin Kolb (26-of-39 passing for 386 yards and three touchdowns) finished with more yards and completions,
Mitchell earned the win and the MVP trophy after tying a Liberty Bowl record with four touchdown passes.
a great game. He made a lot of big plays," Mitchell said of Kolb, the Conference USA career leader in total offense. "We just
ended up scoring more points than they did."
In a game that featured a Liberty Bowl-record 1,039 yards and 80 points,
which tied for the second most in the bowl's history, the USC defense made several second-half stops. After giving up 327
yards and 28 points in the first half, the Gamecocks held Houston to 200 yards and eight points to avoid a second-half meltdown
like last year's Independence Bowl debacle.
"We didn't want just one or two stops. We wanted all of them to be stops,
but it didn't work out that way," said USC middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley, who had 11 tackles. "But I think we got two
or three (stands) and our offense capitalized. Our offense is just as potent as theirs."
Mitchell completed 19 of 29
passes for 323 yards and threw a pair of touchdown strikes to each of the Gamecocks' starting receivers, Sidney Rice and Kenny
It marked the first time in the game's history that both starting quarterbacks topped 300 yards passing.
USC set school bowl records for points, first downs (25), passing yards (323) and total yards (512) in a performance that
surprised at least one of Houston's players.
"I didn't realize that they were that kind of team," said Cougars wideout
Vincent Marshall, whose 201 receiving yards were a Liberty record. "I thought they were a run team off the play-action. They
really threw a lot, more than I thought they would."
Trailing 28-27 after a freewheeling first half that included four
touchdowns in a span of 2:42, Spurrier told his offensive players that they needed to keep scoring.
"Because our defense
was struggling. But their defense was struggling, too," Spurrier said. "Then our defense held them to eight points in the
Down 30-28, Houston blew a scoring opportunity in the third quarter. Facing third-and-goal from the 8-yard
line, Cougars center Sterling Doty sent his shotgun snap to the right of Kolb, who had trouble scooping up the loose ball
and eventually kicked it out of bounds.
The play lost 42 yards ח 27 on the snap and 15 on Kolb's illegal kick
and forced the Cougars to punt on fourth-and-goal from the 50. Houston coach Art Briles credited the USC fans ח about
18,000 of the crowd of 56,103 for affecting the snap.
"We had to go silent count down there, and it disrupted our exchange
out of the shotgun," Briles said. "That was a big turning point. Even if we fall on our face, we have the chance at a 25-yard
field goal from the 8."
After Houston pulled within a score, Spurrier gambled by going for a fourth-and-1 at the USC
37 with four minutes left. The Cougars stuffed Cory Boyd for no gain and took over needing a touchdown and two-point conversion
Gamecocks defensive end Casper Brinkley sacked Kolb for a 13-yard loss on first down, and the Cougars came
up 7 yards short following a Kolb completion on fourth-and-23.
At the postgame news conference, Spurrier fidgeted with
a "Liberty Bowl Champions" hat that did not quite fit him, and picked up a trophy with a crack in it.
No one was complaining.
Person at (803) 771-8496.
Win creates rare feeling heading into offseason
By Ron MorrisMEMPHIS, Tenn.
HAS BEEN a long five years between drinks for the South Carolina football program, but the bowl-victory water was as sweet
as ever following Friday's Liberty Bowl win.
"It was a stepping stone to bigger and better things for South Carolina,
but this was an excellent bowl," a smiling coach Steve Spurrier said minutes after slipping a "Liberty Bowl Champions" hat
atop his head. "If we end up here next year, that would be OK, too. We're shooting to try to win the SEC. We think we've got
enough players to compete."
Perhaps it was fitting that USC players remained on the Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium field
long after the stirring 44-36 victory. The loyal following of 13,000 or so fans who traveled with the Gamecocks deserved to
celebrate with them.
The difference in this bowl celebration and those following back-to-back Outback Bowl wins at
the turn of the century is that this victory signals a start. While the Outback bowls were the high-water mark for the previous
coach, the Liberty Bowl could prove the turning point in Steve Spurrier's program.
"Around the country it's getting
known now that South Carolina can compete at the highest level," Spurrier said.
Bowl wins have been difficult to come
by for USC over the years, so each of the four carries with it some significance. Spurrier has made it clear that USC needs
to begin winning bowl games more consistently, and that is why he annually sets a goal for the team to not only play in a
bowl game but to win one.
USC missed the chance to get the bowl ball rolling a season ago in a disappointing Independence
Bowl loss to Missouri. A repeat of that performance was not about to happen in the Liberty Bowl.
Spurrier said that
Houston did not have an "SEC caliber" defense and that was apparent throughout. Spurrier's offense seldom sputtered, rolled
up 512 yards and was forced to punt twice.
USC's ability to establish a rushing game, one that netted 189 yards, kept
Houston's defense honest and allowed quarterback Blake Mitchell to pick apart the Cougars' secondary. Mitchell's 323 yards
passing and four touchdowns earned him game MVP honors.
Unfortunately for USC, its defense did not look to be "SEC
caliber" in a wild first half that concluded with a flurry of scoring. In a 2:42 span, the teams combining for four touchdowns
two each ח that left Houston with a 28-27 lead.
The second half was another matter.
"The best thing about
our kids, they kept competing and when the game was on the line, they made a play," said Tyrone Nix, USC's defensive coordinator.
"That's something I can't say we've done every time this year in those situations."
USC limited Houston's vaunted offense
to a single touchdown after halftime and stopped the Cougars on what could have been a late game-tying touchdown.
our defense stopped them, and we're flying home a winner (today)," Spurrier said.
In so doing, USC heads to the off-season
breathing rare air. The Gamecocks have concluded the season with three consecutive victories for only the fifth time in program
history and registered eight or more wins in a season for only the eighth time.
The bowl win provides enough momentum
for USC to begin feeling good about itself heading into next season.
"We're not looking forward to any cold-weather
bowls," said junior running back Cory Boyd, who recently added a Gamecock logo tattoo to his left shoulder as a sign of committing
himself to the program.
"We're trying to check into the Jan. 1 bowls and try to do some big things," he said. "It's
the best way to end the season with a three-game winning streak. We had our ups and our downs. We had a lot of turmoil amongst
each other, but we still found a way even with a young team. We're just going to have to build on this for next year."
least for one more night in Memphis and perhaps through the off-season, USC can savor what is a sweet, sweet victory for the
"It's a whole lot better leaving here than Shreveport, isn't it?" said Nix, suggesting that the bitter taste
of last year's Independence Bowl loss is finally gone.
It certainly appeared that way for Spurrier as he sported his
Liberty Bowl hat. Usually preferring to wear a visor, Spurrier said he was so happy about having "Champions" scripted across
a hat, that he planned to wear it all evening as he and his coaches celebrated.
You got the feeling that this is only
the first of what will be many bowl celebrations to come for Spurrier and his Gamecocks.