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Split Decision: Clemson unable to stop late-season slide in Music City/South Carolina wins shootout with Houston in Liberty

Carolina totals 512 yards of offense

Published on 12/30/06
The Post and Courier

South Carolina 44, Houston 36

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier paused while waiting to be interviewed by ESPN on the field following the Gamecocks' 44-36 victory over Houston in the Liberty Bowl, offered up that trademark grin and said, 'Well, it was a defensive struggle, wasn't it?'

On the contrary, Friday's Liberty Bowl was an offensive showcase all the way, and that made it a game where Spurrier is usually at his absolute play-calling best.

South Carolina (8-5) rolled up 512 yards in total offense and quarterback Blake Mitchell threw for 323 yards and four touchdowns on a day when every offensive possession was magnified because both

Gamecocks take down Cougars in Liberty Bowl

defenses were hanging on for dear life.

Mitchell more than held his own against Houston senior quarterback Kevin Kolb, who came into the game with gaudy numbers for the Cougars (10-4), having thrown for 3,423 yards with 27 touchdowns and only three interceptions.

Kolb threw for 386 yards and three touchdowns against the Gamecocks, but South Carolina walked off a winner, and Mitchell cradled the Liberty Bowl MVP Trophy.

"He had a great game and made a lot of big plays," Mitchell said. "We just ended up scoring more points than they did."

After the Gamecocks trailed 28-27 at halftime, South Carolina kicker Ryan Succop put the Gamecocks in the lead with a 45-yard field goal with 9:55 to play in the third quarter.

Houston quickly countered with a drive to the South Carolina 8-yard line, but on a third-and-goal play from there, a bad snap went over the head of Kolb, who further compounded the error by kicking the ball out of bounds.

After the 15-yard penalty and loss of down for the illegal kick, Houston was facing fourth-and-goal from midfield and had to punt.

"I think that was the difference in the game," said Houston coach Art Briles. "It was just a bad series of events. I have to give credit to the South Carolina crowd. We had to go to a silent count, and we had a bad snap."

From that point, Mitchell took over. He hooked up with wide receiver Kenny McKinley for a pair of 43-yard touchdown passes that put the Gamecocks ahead 44-28.

Still, the Gamecocks had to hold on.

The Cougars scored on a 3-yard run by Jackie Battle and made the two-point conversion to make it 44-36 with 5:42 to play.

Houston got the ball back in great shape after South Carolina failed to make a first down when Spurrier gambled on fourth-and-one from the Gamecocks' 37 and tailback Cory Boyd was stopped short with 3:59 to play.

However, Kolb was sacked by Casper Brinkley for a 13-yard loss on the first play, and three consecutive incompletions gave the ball and essentially the game to the Gamecocks.

"To hold them to eight points was a very good defensive effort in the second half," Spurrier said. "Our defense came through when they had to."

Predictions of a shootout came to fruition in the first half when the two teams combined for a Liberty Bowl record 55 first-half points, with Houston leading 28-27.

After the first quarter ended with the score tied at 7-7, the scoring frenzy began.

Each team scored twice in the last 2:53 of the half, with Houston trumping Boyd's 9-yard touchdown run with 42 seconds to play with a 77-yard pass from Kolb to Vincent Marshall with 11 seconds left.

It was Marshall's second score of the half. He got the scoring started with a 32-yard touchdown reception with 12:59 to play in the first quarter.

South Carolina tied it on Boyd's 2-yard touchdown run with 2:09 to play in the quarter.

The Gamecocks scored again on a 1-yard touchdown pass from Mitchell to tight end Robert Pavlovic with 10:47 to play in the second quarter, but Gamecock kicker Ryan Succop missed the extra point.

Succop also missed a 33-yard field goal in the first half.

The game see-sawed from there, with Houston regaining the lead 14-13 on a 4-yard pass from Kolb to Hafner, and South Carolina moving ahead 20-14 on Mitchell's 19-yard touchdown pass to Sidney Rice.

Jackie Battle scored on a 42-yard run to put the Cougars back on top 21-20 with 2:09 to play, setting up the final scores of the half by Boyd and Marshall.

South Carolina's defense yielded 327 yards in total offense in the first half, but defensive end Jordin Lindsey came up with two big plays.

Lindsey stopped a Houston drive with an interception, and set up a South Carolina touchdown when he recovered a Houston fumble at the 19-yard line.

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"To hold them to eight points was a very good defensive effort in the second half. Our defense came through when they had to."   ~Steve Spurrier (on South Carolina's defense)