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'Dores take USC back to school

Vandy scores 21 second-half points; McKinley misses final three quarters

jperson@thestate.com

NASHVILLE — After getting knocked off last year by the “sorriest team in the SEC,” South Carolina players vowed they would not overlook Vanderbilt.

Maybe not, but the Gamecocks still haven’t figured out how to beat the Commodores.

After falling behind 10-3 in the first half, Vandy stormed back for 21 second-half points Thursday to stun No. 24 USC 24-17 for the second year in a row before a black-clad crowd of 36,850 at Vanderbilt Stadium.

It turns out the Gamecocks (1-1, 0-1 in SEC) should have been in black, mourning another tough loss to the team that traditionally has been at the bottom of the SEC East standings.

Vanderbilt (2-0, 1-0) knocked off an SEC team in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1998 and ‘99.

The opponent then: South Carolina, which was in the midst of a 1-21 stretch.

It was a tough 1-2 punch to the gut of Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier, who had never lost to the Commodores before last season.

USC safety Emanuel Cook apologized this week for his “sorriest team” comment, which came moments after the Commodores’ 17-6 victory in Columbia.

Cook was more understated this year as he stood outside the Gamecocks’ locker room.

“It hurt more than last year,” Cook said. “ We knew what to expect and we didn’t defend it right. We didn’t have everything going well.”

Vandy coach Bobby Johnson said he had trouble figuring out why his team was a 10-point underdog to USC.

“I was surprised that so many people thought it would be real hard for us to beat them,” said Johnson, a Columbia native and former Furman coach. “We beat them last year and I don’t know why everybody thought they got so much better than what we were getting.

“I was glad to get out there and play the game. It was fun.”

Trailing 24-10, the Gamecocks pulled within a score on Freddie Brown’s first career touchdown — a 5-yard reception that made it 24-17 with 7:39 remaining.

Quarterback Chris Smelley had the big play on the drive — a career-long, 24-yard scramble on first-and-20 from the 50.

USC got the ball right back after Vanderbilt went three-and-out. After a short punt gave the Gamecocks the ball in Commodores territory, USC picked up a first down at the 34 yard line.

But the drive stalled when Vandy sacked Smelley on consecutive plays when the Commodores blitzed. Smelley almost escaped the rush on second down, but defensive tackle Greg Billinger got enough of Smelley to drop him for a 6-yard loss.

When Smelley went down for a 2-yard loss on third down, Spurrier elected to punt on fourth-and-18 from the USC 42-yard line, giving the Commodores possession at their 5 with 2:34 remaining.

After the defense forced a quick punt the previous series, Spurrier said he was hoping it would stop the run and give the Gamecocks one final shot.

But tailback Jared Hawkins carried five consecutive times for 24 yards and a pair of first downs, and Vandy ran out the clock.

“It looked like the right thing to do,” Spurrier said of his decision to punt. “They were three-and-out the prior time. If they don’t make the first down, we could have gotten it back with a couple of minutes left.”

The Gamecocks had a few special teams miscues — two missed field goals by Ryan Succop, the first of which was blocked, and a fluke fumble on a punt that hit the leg of Addison Williams.

USC played the final three quarters without All-SEC receiver Kenny McKinley, who left with an apparent hamstring injury. McKinley scored the Gamecocks’ first touchdown on a 19-yard pass with six minutes left in the first quarter.

With McKinley out, the Gamecocks resorted to draw plays for tailback Mike Davis and passes to tight end Jared Cook, who set career highs with eight receptions for 111 yards.

But Cook was in no mood to celebrate after history repeated itself.

“What is there to explain, man?” Cook said. “You saw the game. They just outplayed us.”

Reach Person at (803) 771-8496.

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GO GAMECOCKS!