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Smelley, special teams shine

Published on 09/30/07
BY TRAVIS HANEY
The Post and Courier

No. 16 South Carolina 38, Mississippi State 21

COLUMBIA — This was new. At least this season.

Was that Steve Spurrier wearing a wide smile after a game? Had South Carolina's Head Ball Coach actually seen something to his liking?

After a so-so start on a sun-drenched Saturday afternoon, Eric Norwood's third-quarter blocked punt sparked the Gamecocks as they ran past Mississippi State 38-21 in front of 78,883 fans on homecoming at Williams-Brice Stadium.

Junior receiver Kenny McKinley, who had four catches for 104 yards and a pair of scores, called it South Carolina's best game so far in 2007.

Spurrier wasn't too far behind that assessment.

"See, I'm not always upset when I come in here and talk to you fellas," Spurrier said, grinning at those he calls "the media boys." "This game was encouraging for us. If we continue improving, find some guys that love to play, love to compete, who knows where we'll lead to this year?"

Still, Spurrier might've been forlorn afterward if not for Norwood's special moment for the Gamecocks' special teams.

No. 16 USC (4-1, 2-1 SEC), which hosts 5-0 Kentucky on Thursday, trailed 21-17 when co-special teams coach Shane Beamer put on the block.

Norwood, a sophomore defensive end, slipped by the snapper, got into the backfield and jabbed his hand into Blake McAdams' attempt to punt.

USC's Ranzino Valentine pounced on the ball and the stadium's energy, previously pretty dormant, spiked.

"OK," Spurrier said, "we can say special teams helped win a game around here now."

On the next play, Chris Smelley hit Kenny McKinley for a 27-yard touchdown that put the Gamecocks up for good. McKinley had a 48-yard catch on a slant later that set up another score.

Mike Davis' 12-yard touchdown run in the final minute capped the victory. Davis tied a school record with three rushing scores.

After the ugly season-opening win against Louisiana-Lafayette, Spurrier openly ripped the special teams. He said the units "didn't do a damn thing."

That didn't ring true Saturday. Norwood's play, paired with the ensuing touchdown throw, turned the game in a second.

"It changes the momentum quicker than anything," Beamer said. "We needed something good to happen."

Judging by Spurrier's chippy attitude late in the week, there was reason to believe disaster awaited the Gamecocks.

It was the team's first game without star linebacker Jasper Brinkley, out for the year with a knee injury. And it was redshirt freshman Chris Smelley's first long look as the starting quarterback.

With the special teams help, both units came through fine. A little bit better than fine, really.

"It was a good win for us," Spurrier said. "We were down in the third quarter. For guys to keep on playing, it was sort of neat. We're excited to beat those guys."

Smelley responded to his new job, going 19-for-37 for 279 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. Spurrier said he'll start against Kentucky.

"I know coach is happy to know he did some good things for the offense," sad running back Cory Boyd, who had 58 yards after rebounding from an early knee injury.

Defensively, the run-happy Bulldogs managed 140 rushing yards against USC, which gave up 292 yards on the ground last week to LSU.

After Mississippi State (3-2, 1-2) had some early success, defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix stacked the box with nine men and ran more blitzes to halt the Bulldogs.

"We started taking more chances," Nix said. "Us going in without Jasper, winning is a positive for us."

The effort resulted in Spurrier's 100th SEC win. He's now a jaw-dropping 100-25 in 15 seasons in the league.

Spurrier was giddy enough that he awarded himself a game ball afterward.

"We're trying to become complete," Norwood said, "offense, defense, special teams."

Reach Travis Haney at thaney@postandcourier.com.

GO GAMECOCKS!