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USC wraps up a victory

A blocked punt and a new quarterback help USC outlast Mississippi State

By Joseph Person
The State
Published: September 30, 2007
Chris Smelley’s performance could have made the South Carolina quarterback the toast of the town Saturday.

Except Smelley did not plan on hitting the town.

In his first game since supplanting Blake Mitchell as the starter, Smelley celebrated his 21st birthday by throwing for 279 yards and two touchdowns to lift the 16th-ranked Gamecocks to a 38-21 victory against Mississippi State in front of 78,883 at Williams-Brice Stadium.

Smelley, who replaced Mitchell at halftime in last week’s loss at LSU, completed 19 of 37 passes and finished with the most yardage by a USC quarterback this season.

“That’s what I was hoping for, just come out here and get a win and have a good game,” Smelley said. “So it went great and I’m ready to enjoy my birthday.”

But Smelley expected the celebration to be fairly tame.

“I’m not too big of a partier-type guy, so you probably won’t see me down at Five Points,” he said.

Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier’s gift to Smelley was a game ball — and another start Thursday against No. 14 Kentucky, which remained unbeaten with a 45-17 victory against Florida Atlantic.

Spurrier also gave himself a game ball for notching his 100th SEC victory.

USC (4-1, 2-1 SEC) won its fourth in a row against the Bulldogs (3-2, 1-2), which had their winning streak snapped at three games.

Smelley was not the only offensive star. Gamecocks tailback Mike Davis tied a school record with three touchdown runs, while Kenny McKinley caught four passes for 107 yards and two touchdowns.

But it was a blocked punt by the Gamecocks’ Eric Norwood that swung momentum, and an adjustment by USC defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix sealed the deal.

Mississippi State, a 14-point underdog, led 21-17 following a 2-yard touchdown run by Anthony Dixon midway through the third quarter. The partisan crowd grew a bit restless after Ryan Succop pulled a 50-yard field goal attempt left.

When the Bulldogs lined up to punt on their next possession, USC co-special teams coordinator and former Mississippi State assistant Shane Beamer called for the block.

Norwood, a defensive end who lined up over the snapper, came through cleanly to get a hand on Blake McAdams’ kick. USC’s Ranzino Valentine recovered at the Bulldogs’ 27-yard line with 3:51 left in the third quarter.

“At that point the stadium was real quiet. It felt like we had the upper hand and that changed everything,” Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom said. “The people in the stands woke up, their players got some extra juice and the tides really turned on us.”

On USC’s first snap after the block, Smelley found McKinley for a 27-yard touchdown pass and the Gamecocks never trailed again.

“From then on,” Spurrier said, “it was pretty good sailing for us.”

The Bulldogs began the second half by gouging holes in a Gamecocks’ run defense that entered the game ranked 104th out of 119 Bowl Subdivision teams. Dixon’s touchdown was the last of five consecutive runs on the five-play, 48-yard drive.

Nix countered by bringing a second safety closer to the line of scrimmage, giving the Gamecocks as many as nine players in the box on some plays.

“We weren’t good enough up front and at linebacker getting off blocks and making the plays,” Nix said. “So we had to commit a little bit more or we weren’t going to win the game.”

Moving the safeties allowed Nix to call a few run blitzes for his linebackers, and the holes quickly closed for Dixon and Co. After Dixon’s second touchdown, the Bulldogs rushed 13 times for 28 yards, including five plays that went for no gain or lost yardage.

USC, which had allowed an average of 216 rushing yards in its first four games, held Mississippi State to 140 yards on 42 carries.

“We didn’t give up 200,” Nix said. “Two hundred’s kind of embarrassing, but that seems to be our norm against the run.”

As for Smelley, the redshirt freshman from Tuscaloosa, Ala., enjoyed decent protection (he was sacked twice) and made one mistake — a first-quarter interception he threw on the run.

“I was just reliving high school, I guess — trying to make too big a play when you roll out,” Smelley said.

But Smelley said he never worried about getting yanked by Spurrier, who told him early in the week that he intended to stick with him the entire game.

Now, Smelley will get another start — after what figured to be a quiet 21st birthday.

“Knowing him,” right tackle Justin Sorensen said, “he’ll probably just go and hang out with his girlfriend and sit at the house.”

Reach Person at (803) 771-8496.

GO GAMECOCKS!