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USC Passes Smelley Test

Quarterback sparks Gamecocks' victory

Published on 10/05/08
The Post and Courier

OXFORD, MISS. — South Carolina's SEC drought is over.

Exactly a year after the last one,

the Gamecocks found a way to again win in the Southeastern Conference. And they looked pretty good doing it Saturday.

Riding big plays from its defense and — surprise — its offense, South Carolina pulled the mild 31-24 upset of Mississippi at Vaught-Hemingway

Stadium a week after the Rebels knocked off then-No. 4 Florida in the Swamp.

That was Ole Miss' first SEC win in nearly two years. South Carolina didn't have to suffer that long, but the six-game losing streak wasn't exactly comfortable.

For the Gamecocks, who head to Kentucky next week, 4-2 overall and 1-2 in the SEC sounds and feels a lot better than 3-3 and 0-3.

"We really needed that one," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said.

Aided by receiver Kenny McKinley's return from a hamstring injury, the long-awaited emergence of some young receivers and Chris Smelley's steady day, the downtrodden USC offense finally got off the mat.

"We've been waiting for this," said McKinley, who had four catches for 56 yards in his first game in a month. "I think this is going to lift us up for the rest of the season. I think this is the starting point for the rest of the season right now."

The Gamecocks finished with 405 total yards, with Smelley — who did not give way to freshman Stephen Garcia — accounting for a career-high 327 through the air. He threw all three of USC's offensive scores.

The Gamecocks embarked on a 95-yard drive in the fourth quarter to go ahead 10 and pull away from the Rebels (3-3, 1-2).

"That may be the longest one we've ever had around here," Spurrier said.

Ole Miss' offensive speed sent a punch straight into the gut of the Gamecocks' top-ranked defense, striking for touchdowns on its first two possessions.

But USC finally answered, giving up just three second-half points after surrendering 21 in the first two quarters.

Still, Ole Miss got the ball back down seven with 1:21 to play.

USC corner Carlos Thomas quashed the drama, picking off a Jevan Snead pass to the sideline on second down.

"They jumped on us quickly," Gamecocks defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said, adding that USC's scout team just couldn't simulate Ole Miss' speed. "The one thing we did today was we didn't finish when things weren't going well. That tests the character of a football team."

It's a good sign when the head coach and defensive coordinator can't agree on which big play by the defense had a greater influence on the game.

Spurrier is going with Chris Culliver's third-quarter strip of Ole Miss' Dexter McCluster inside the USC 10-yard line. The fumble was recovered by Emanuel Cook and returned 52 yards to set up a score.

But Johnson thinks Nate Pepper's 29-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown early in the second quarter was the game-changing play. Clifton Geathers stripped Snead, and Pepper scooped it up to give the Gamecocks' a 17-14 lead. Johnson said USC hadn't proven it could stop the Rebs until then.

Offensively, the Gamecocks had been far from a home-run threat coming in, but they finally delivered some big plays against the Rebs.

Smelley found tight end Jared Cook for a 63-yard pitch-and-catch on third-and-long late in the first quarter. It was the longest play for USC since November 2006.

Smelley hit Jason Barnes in the back of the end zone for a 20-yard score on third down. He found Barnes again, from 6 yards out, in the third quarter.

Then came that epic drive, capped by Smelley rolling out and finding Joe Hills for a 4-yard TD on third down.

For a change, South Carolina won't have a quarterback controversy this week: Spurrier said Smelley "is our starter."

USC had been familiar with Tyrone Nix's defenses giving up long, crucial third-down conversions. This time the Gamecocks were on the other end: They converted 7 of 13 in the game, as did the Rebels. But that was more of an upset for what had been a challenged Spurrier offense.

"I didn't think they would go up and down the field on us like that," Ole Miss first-year coach Houston Nutt said. "It was surprising. They made some big plays."

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