The University of South Carolina football team overcame a shaky first half to blow past Nebraska 30-13 in the Capital One Bowl on Monday – giving the school its first 11-win season in 118 years and securing its first-ever Top Ten finish.
South Carolina’s previous records for most victories (10) and highest season-ending ranking (#11) were both set in 1984.
The ninth-ranked Gamecocks (11-2, 6-2 SEC) started off slowly – and appeared to be en route to their fourth consecutive bowl loss under head coach Steve Spurrier. However a miraculous go-ahead Hail Mary pass from quarterback Connor Shaw to wide receiver Alshon Jeffery on the final play of the first half turned out to be all the offense USC would need against the 20th-ranked Cornhuskers (9-4, 5-3 Big Ten).
After some questionable clock management by Spurrier (which was eerily similar to the final moments of USC’s disappointing loss to Auburn three months ago), South Carolina – trailing 13-9 at the time – looked as though it had squandered an opportunity to put points on the board against the Huskers’ defense before halftime.
But with just six seconds on the clock Spurrier dialed up a prayer – one which was answered by Shaw and Jeffery.
After nearly losing his balance in the backfield (and narrowly avoiding a sack), Shaw managed to break free and heave the football to the Nebraska five-yard line as time expired. There, a leaping Jeffery caught it over several Cornhusker defenders (and teammate Rory Anderson) before spinning away from a tackle and fully extending into the end zone for the dramatic score.
The touchdown gave the Gamecocks a huge boost of momentum heading into the second half, although Nebraska continued to trade jabs with the favorites from the mighty Southeastern Conference.
In fact, it was several literal jabs from Cornhusker cornerback Alfonso Dennard aimed at Jeffery late in the third quarter that could have shifted the game in Nebraska’s favor.
Dennard – who had been pushing and holding Jeffery throughout the game – threw at least three punches at the Gamecock wide receiver along the sideline following an incomplete pass. Jeffery shoved Dennard after one of those punches, prompting the Big East officiating crew to eject both players from the game.
Yet just as USC recovered earlier this year from the loss of fifth-year staring quarterback Stephen Garcia (who was dismissed from the team) and Heisman Trophy candidate Marcus Lattimore (who suffered a season-ending knee injury against Mississippi State) – the Gamecocks dug deep and found a way to win yet another big game.
In the fourth quarter, USC’s defense simply took – sacking quarterback Taylor Martinez four times and holding the Cornhusker offense to minus-26 yards.
The Gamecocks recorded six sacks on the game – including two by SEC Freshman of the Year Jadeveon Clowney.
Not a bad first outing for new defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward – who was promoted to the post by Spurrier after associate head coach Ellis Johnson left to take the head coaching position at Southern Mississippi last month.
The offense responded with a pair of fourth quarter scoring drives – both capped by touchdowns from third-string running back Kenny Miles.
Shaw – who had arguably his best game ever against Clemson five weeks ago – turned in another gutsy, mistake-free performance in the bowl game. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound quarterback from Flowery Branch, Georgia completed 11 of 17 passes for 230 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He also ran for42 yards and scored another touchdown.
Jeffery hauled in four passes for a season-high 148 yards – earning the game’s MVP award in the process. It’s likely his last game in a South Carolina uniform, as most pro scouts have him listed as a late first round NFL draft pick.
While the Gamecocks limited their errors, Nebraska simply couldn’t overcome its miscues – including a blocked extra point following its first touchdown that Gamecock defensive back Stephon Gilmore returned for a two-point conversion. The Cornhuskers also turned the football over twice and committed ten penalties – sending their excitable head coach Bo Pelini into numerous profanity-laced tirades on the Citrus Bowl sidelines.
On the other sideline, Spurrier received another victory bath from his players.
After posting a less-than-inspiring 35-28 record during his first five seasons – including an 18-22 mark against SEC opponents – Spurrier has gone 20-7 over his last two seasons, winning the school’s first-ever SEC East title a year ago prior to this year’s record- breaking exploits.
Pic: Travis Bell, Sideline Carolina