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Grand Opening

Defense, Smelley sparkle as Gamecocks shut out Wolfpack

Published on 08/29/08

BY TRAVIS HANEY
The Post and Courier

COLUMBIA — Steve Spurrier said a few weeks ago that he could see Tommy

Beecher being South Carolina's

quarterback for the next two years.

But, based on Thursday's opener, Beecher probably didn't deserve more than two quarters. And he might not see a second week directing the offense.

Despite four interceptions from the fourth-year junior who was lauded by Spurrier throughout the summer, the Gamecocks' defense pitched a shutout against North Carolina State and Beecher's understudy, Chris Smelley, sparked the fledgling offense.

In a deceptive-looking final score, South Carolina pulled away from the Wolfpack for a 34-0 victory before 80,616 at Williams-Brice Stadium.

It was 13-0 entering the fourth quarter.

"It wasn't that convincing if you ask me," said Spurrier, who now has four ugly wins in his four openers at USC. "Our offense really sputtered for three quarters ... We're not sitting around here bragging about it, that's for sure. Especially our offensive guys."

Suddenly, after spewing for months all sorts of confidence about Beecher,

there's again a quarterback battle

entering Thursday's Vanderbilt game (8:30 p.m., ESPN).

Defense, Smelley sparkle for Gamecocks in opener

"We'll have to watch film to see what in the world happened to Tommy," Spurrier said. "We'll evaluate that and make a decision. ... Yes, it is up for debate after what happened."

Spurrier ultimately didn't have to pull Beecher. A minor head injury late in the third quarter did it for him.

That's when Smelley entered. Remember him? He went 4-2 as USC's starter last year, only to be passed by Beecher when Smelley threw five interceptions in the spring game.

But the sophomore showed no signs of that play Thursday. After entering the game, he promptly led the Gamecocks (1-0) on a six-play, 60-yard drive that was capped by a 20-yard score from Smelley to Dion LeCorn.

Get this: At the time, that pitch-and-catch was the longest play from scrimmage. (On the way to a 101-yard night off the bench, Mike Davis later had a 50-yard run.)

Smelley then led touchdown drives of 69 and 74 yards on the next two possessions.

A 13-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jared Cook made this one look like a blowout.

In those Smelley-led scoring drives, USC piled up 203 yards. It had 161 in the previous three quarters.

More importantly, three drives for Smelley. Three touchdowns.

"I went out there and did what I had to do," Smelley said. "I don't know if I'll be playing next week. (It's) whatever the coaches want to do."

With Beecher and the offense scuffling, the Gamecocks called upon their defense.

A depleted and young Wolfpack offense was dominated all over the field by first-year coordinator Ellis Johnson's unit, which held N.C. State to 80 first-half yards.

The Wolfpack (0-1) had 138 total yards in the game, and failed to advance past the USC 33-yard line. A long missed field goal was as close as it got for N.C. State.

An Eric Norwood fumble recovery of an errant snap set up the Gamecocks' first score, a 29-yard Ryan Succop field goal, to close the first half.

Just into the third quarter, Carlos Thomas' interception and return to the Wolfpack 10 set up USC's first touchdown — a 1-yard run by Davis on a fourth-down sweep play.

"I think we have a pretty good defense," Spurrier said. "Thank goodness we brought a defense."

Despite the final score, it's hard to ignore how slothfully the Gamecocks' offense came out of the blocks.

Beecher's first interception, on USC's first possession, came on an overthrow of Moe Brown on a deep post.

The second, on USC's fourth drive, was a Beecher throw into triple coverage. N.C. State linebacker Nate Irving made a one-handed grab of the ill-advised pass.

On the following possession, the third was a desperation heave downfield.

Beecher had thrown three interceptions in the team's first five possessions.

He added one more in the second half on another panic-stricken downfield heave.

Beecher, who had numerous other overthrows and completed very few passes downfield, finished 12-for-22 for 106 yards and the four turnovers.

"I don't have the answer (as to why he struggled)," Spurrier said. "All I can say is I know he threw better in practice than he threw tonight."

Beecher was also sacked five times, sharing the blame for that with his offensive line.

Despite more depth and

experience, the line accounted for four false starts and one holding call — although, as Spurrier pointed out, it did

improve in the fourth quarter with the help of North Charleston's Jarriel King at

left tackle.

In the end, Smelley and the defense redeemed the night for the Gamecocks.

"It was, as you know, a big struggle," Spurrier said. "I appreciate our fans being patient with our offense."

Reach Travis Haney at thaney@postandcourier.com and check out the new South Carolina blog at www.charleston.net/blogs/gamecocks.

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GO GAMECOCKS!