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A half-bad victory

Gamecocks forced to bat down last gasp pass after squandering early lead

By Joseph Person
The State
Published: October 13, 2007
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — At halftime it appeared South Carolina’s starters would be resting comfortably by the fourth quarter, and the Gamecocks’ fans who made the trip would have a head start for the bars and restaurants on Franklin Street.

Instead, the game ended with two of the Gamecocks’ best receivers playing deep safety and knocking down a last-second, Hail Mary pass that could have won it for unranked North Carolina.

Survive and advance.

In a year when one of the country’s top teams seems to fall every week (see No. 1 LSU), the seventh-ranked Gamecocks lived to fight another week in the top 10.

USC built a 21-3 halftime lead and held on by its fingernails, escaping Kenan Stadium with a 21-15 victory in the renewal of a Carolinas rivalry that had been dormant since 1991.

The Gamecocks (6-1) won their eighth consecutive nonconference game despite getting outgained 286 to 62 in the second half and crossing midfield twice after halftime.

“College football’s so balanced out this year. A win’s a win in college football,” USC quarterback Chris Smelley said. “It doesn’t matter how pretty it is, how ugly it is. So we’re thankful to come out of here with a victory.”

As Smelley sat at a table and addressed reporters, a large-screen TV a few feet away was tuned to Kentucky’s 43-37, triple-overtime win against LSU.

The Gamecocks avoided a similar fate because of Smelley’s career-high three touchdown passes in the first half and a pass breakup by two offensive players thrown into defensive duty on the final play.

After Ryan Succop missed a 48-yard field goal attempt that banged off the right upright with 41 seconds left, the Tar Heels (2-5) took over at their 31-yard line, trailing by six points and out of timeouts.

After an incompletion, T.J. Yates hit three consecutive passes to move the Heels to the Gamecocks’ 31 with 11 seconds left. Yates’ first shot at the end zone was batted down by free safety Darian Stewart, who sprained his right knee on the play and had to come out.

Instead of sending in extra defensive backs, Gamecocks defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix called on receiver Kenny McKinley and tight end Jared Cook, who lined up side-by-side at the goal line in the “Victory” formation.

The two had not worked on defense all year, but USC coaches had talked about using their best players in end-of-game, jump-ball situations since nearly squandering a fourth-quarter lead last year at Kentucky.

“They naturally go up and get the ball at the highest point and know how to make plays,” Nix said. “We hadn’t practiced it. We just put them back there to win the game.”

Cook and McKinley did not exactly swat away Yates’ rainbow pass with authority, but they did enough. McKinley got a hand on the ball first, and the 6-foot-5 Cook took a swipe at it next to ensure UNC’s Brooks Foster would not come up with it.

As it turned out, Foster was at the 1 when he caught the ball on a bounce. USC coach Steve Spurrier, who improved to 4-0 against UNC, said it would have been a fitting ending had the Heels fallen a yard short.

“Sometimes you look at these teams that have big years they have a bunch of ugly wins — games they could have lost, but they won,” Spurrier said. “We’re happy to be where we are and hopefully we can start playing a lot better or we’ll probably be in trouble.”

The Gamecocks were 1-for-12 on third down and their deepest second-half penetration was to the UNC 31 on their final drive, which ended with Succop’s missed field goal.

Spurrier took responsibility for the Gamecocks’ “putrid” offense, saying he became too conservative with an 18-point lead.

“We got to where we were ahead 21-3 and our defense was playing well, so I’m calling that conservative run-run crap,” Spurrier said. “But when we tried to throw, we couldn’t hit anything, either.”

Spurrier called running plays on first and second down to begin five of the Gamecocks’ seven second-half possessions. Smelley completed 3-of-7 passes for 36 yards and an interception in the second half, while USC rushed 16 times for 26 yards.

“It’s not like our offense,” said Cook, who had a 12-yard touchdown reception. “That’s not Carolina football.”

But it was a win. And on a day when another top-10 team went down, the Gamecocks were not making any apologies.

“It was amazing we still won the game,” Spurrier said. “But we’re going to take it.”

Reach Person at (803) 771-8496.

“We got to where we were ahead 21-3 and our defense was playing well, so I’m calling that conservative run-run crap.  But when we tried to throw, we couldn’t hit anything, either.”  ~Steve Spurrier