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Gamecocks shut out Wolfpack in opener
jperson@thestate.com

On a night when Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama made his acceptance speech in Denver, Chris Smelley announced his own candidacy with a loud, fourth-quarter statement that could shake up South Carolina’s quarterback race.

With the Gamecocks’ offense stymied for three quarters with first-time starter Tommy Beecher under center, Smelley came off the bench Thursday to lead three touchdown drives against N.C. State that turned a 13-0 defensive struggle into a 34-0 blowout.

The win improved USC coach Steve Spurrier’s record in openers to 18-1 and snapped the Gamecocks’ five-game losing streak, the longest of Spurrier’s career.

Spurrier gave defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson a game ball after the Winnsboro native led a shutout in his Gamecocks’ debut. It was the Gamecocks’ first shutout since they blanked Mississippi State 15-0 in the 2006 season opener when Johnson was the Bulldogs’ coordinator.

But most of the postgame questions focused on the quarterback competition that Spurrier said is open again.

“Yes, it is up (for) debate,” Spurrier said. “We’re going to try to put the best guy out there to win the ballgame. If we think Chris Smelley’s the best guy, we’ll put him out there.”

Spurrier did not insert Smelley on Thursday until Beecher left near the end of the third quarter after taking a hit that left him woozy. It was a night the right-hander would prefer to forget.

Beecher picked up where he left off in the spring game, tossing four interceptions and failing to hit any downfield throws. Named the starter in April, Beecher was 12-of-22 passing for 106 yards. His longest completion was a dump-off pass to tailback Mike Davis for 18 yards. He also was sacked five times.

Spurrier said he would analyze the game video to “see what in the world happened to Tommy.”

“I know he had some pressure on at times. I know we didn’t have some good plays on at times. I know he threw the ball where he wasn’t supposed to,” Spurrier added. “But then again, it was his first game and he had a lot of guys in his face at times.”

USC gained 161 total yards in Beecher’s 11 possessions but came alive in the fourth quarter behind Smelley. The redshirt sophomore led touchdown drives his first three series, with the Gamecocks’ 203 yards on those scoring drives surpassing their total from the first three quarters combined.

Smelley, who was 4-2 as a starter last season, completed all five of his passes for 92 yards and two touchdowns. But he downplayed his performance, saying it was nothing special.

“I didn’t do too much. I was able to hit a couple passes,” he said. “Basically, just hand the ball to Mike Davis and let the O-line open some holes for him.”

Davis, benched for the start of the game because of injury and disciplinary reasons, rushed for 101 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries. The senior from Columbia had a career-long 50-yard run to set up Taylor Rank’s fourth-quarter touchdown run.

Meanwhile, Johnson’s defense delivered a smothering performance. The Gamecocks allowed 138 total yards — the fewest under Spurrier — forced four turnovers, and did not allow the Wolfpack to cross midfield in the second half.

N.C. State’s deepest penetration was the South Carolina 32-yard line in a first-half drive that resulted in a missed field goal.

“They didn’t do anything we weren’t expecting,” N.C. State quarterback Daniel Evans said. “Definitely give them credit for blanking us.”

USC led 3-0 at halftime thanks to the defense.

Linebacker Eric Norwood pounced on a bad snap to Evans, who replaced Russell Wilson late in the first half when the redshirt freshman was carted off with a concussion. USC’s three plays after Norwood’s recovery netted zero yards, and Spurrier was forced to send out Ryan Succop for a 29-yard field goal with 20 seconds remaining in the first half.

Norwood said the loss of Wilson, known for his running ability, allowed the Gamecocks to play more aggressively.

“I think it took some momentum out of them and gave us momentum,” said Norwood, who was not credited with any tackles in his first game at linebacker. “It just changed the whole game because we knew their scrambling type guy wasn’t in and we could go after them.”

The offense’s late surge and the defense’s domination resulted in the Gamecocks’ most lopsided, opening-game win since a 56-17 win against The Citadel in 1985.

It also could prompt a change at quarterback for the Vanderbilt game.

“I went out there and gave it everything I had,” Smelley said. “I don’t know if I’ll be playing next week or not. That’s whatever coach decides to do, and I’ll be all right with it. But I want to play.”

He made a strong opening argument.

Reach Person at (803) 771-8496.

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GO GAMECOCKS!