Chalk up another signature win for University of South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier – whose Gamecock football team humbled No. 22 Florida in Gainesville to capture the school’s first-ever SEC Eastern Division title.
Not content with upsetting top-ranked Alabama earlier this season, Spurrier’s Gamecocks knocked off the Gators in convincing fashion on Saturday – becoming the first USC team in history to beat Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in the same season.
With the win, the Gamecocks (7-3, 5-3 SEC) punched their tickets for the SEC championship game in Atlanta. There, on December 4, they will play the currently-undefeated Auburn Tigers – who clinched the SEC Western Division championship earlier Saturday with a 49-31 win over the Georgia Bulldogs.
The 36-14 blowout was No. 23 South Carolina’s first-ever victory in “The Swamp” – where Spurrier once led the Gators to six SEC titles and a national championship. The win was only USC’s second over Florida since 1939.
Like other big Gamecock victories this season, this win was powered by true freshman running back Marcus Lattimore – who turned in the performance of his young career against Florida (6-4, 4-4 SEC). The Duncan, S.C. native carried the ball 41 times for 212 yards and three touchdowns – all career highs. In doing so, he became the first Gamecock in over a decade to eclipse the 200-yard mark.
Lattimore also caught a pair of passes for 31 yards against the Gators – including a 20-yard catch-and-run that set up a Gamecock field goal at the end of the first half. Not only did Lattimore succeed in getting USC within kicker Spencer Lanning’s range on the play, but he also had the presence of mind to get out of bounds and stop the clock with six seconds remaining knowing that the Gamecocks had already burned their allotment of time outs.
Additionally, Lattimore made the block that sprang quarterback Stephen Garcia for an 8-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter – a score which put the game out of reach.
After Saturday’s heroics against Florida, Lattimore now has 964 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns this season. He’s also caught seventeen passes for 281 yards and two more scores – and still has four games left to pad his stats.
Lattimore isn’t likely to break Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers’ single-season USC rushing record (1,894 yards), but he’s clearly putting together one of the most impressive seasons by a running back in Gamecock history – as a freshman.
While Lattimore was grinding out tough yardage on offense, South Carolina’s defense turned in perhaps its finest performance of the season.
One week after being torched for 41 points and 443 yards by Arkansas, South Carolina’s much-maligned defensive unit held the Gators to just seven points and 226 total yards – although nearly two-thirds of that real estate was surrendered in the fourth quarter after the game was already out of reach. Meanwhile, Florida’s first six possessions ended in punts – including three drives that lost yardage. The Gamecocks also forced a pair of Florida turnovers and shut down all three of the Gators rotating quarterbacks.
In fact, the only real bright spot for Florida came on the game’s opening kickoff, which freshman wide receiver Andre Debose returned 99 yards for a touchdown. That play had a capacity crowd of 90,885 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium buzzing, but over the next three quarters the Gamecocks reeled off 29 unanswered points to take control of the game and send bunches of blue-clad Gator fans heading for the exits.
“Sometimes the Gamecocks get out alive,” Spurrier said, referring to the Swamp’s motto: “Where only Gators get out alive.”
In fact, this time it was Florida head coach Urban Meyer throwing his headset to the ground in disgust after South Carolina’s defense stopped quarterback Jordan Reed on a fourth-and-one play late in the third quarter.
In addition to capturing its first-ever SEC East crown, South Carolina finishes with a winning record against conference opponents for only the fourth time in nineteen seasons. Of course one of those losses came against Auburn – with the Tigers capitalizing on four fourth quarter turnovers to beat the Gamecocks 35-27 at home on September 25. Junior quarterback Cam Newton rushed for 176 yards and three touchdowns against the Gamecocks – while freshman running back Michael Dyer added another 100 yards.
Can South Carolina stop Newton this time?
Obviously that depends on whether the junior quarterback is able to play. With allegations swirling about “pay-to-play” recruiting violations, Newton has seen his front-running Heisman Trophy campaign – and his eligibility – come under a cloud of suspicion. The 6-foot-6, 250-pound signal caller played against Georgia on Saturday, rushing for 151 yards and two touchdowns while throwing for 148 yards and two more touchdowns. With those numbers, he became the first quarterback in SEC history to pass for 2,000 yards and run for 1,000 yards in a single season – although it could all be for naught depending on the outcome of the NCAA’s investigation.
With or without Newton, South Carolina must still figure out a way to solve Auburn’s defense – which held Lattimore to just 33 yards rushing on 14 attempts during the teams’ first meeting.
The winner of the SEC Championship game gets an automatic berth in the Bowl Championship Series – but both the Tigers and Gamecocks have business to attend to prior to their match-up in Atlanta. Auburn hosts defending national champion and arch-rival Alabama (8-2, 5-2 SEC) on November 26, while South Carolina hosts Troy (5-4, 4-2 Sun Belt) next Saturday before traveling to Death Valley the following week to play their arch-rivals, the Clemson Tigers (5-5, 3-4 ACC).
Auburn has won six SEC championships – but is 1-2 in SEC Championship games. The Tigers beat Tennessee in 2004 but lost to the Vols in 1997 and to Florida in 2000. South Carolina hasn’t won a conference championship since 1969, when the Gamecocks competed in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Pic: Travis Bell, Sideline Carolina