Gamecocks Overcome Mistakes, Edge Tigers 31-28


by - Correspondent -
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CLEMSON - Only time will tell, but Saturday could have been a severe blow to the Legend of the Chicken Curse.

South Carolina survived a number of self-inflicted wounds on the afternoon, as well as a late Jad Dean field goal attempt, to defeat Clemson 31-28 at Death Valley. The game was played before an announced crowd of 83,000.

The victory snaps USC's four-game losing streak in the series, and gives Clemson head coach Tommy Bowden just his second loss to the Gamecocks in eight tries.

For South Carolina, it was a much-needed shot in the arm after a series of close losses within the confines of the Southeastern Conference.

For the Tigers, Saturday was the final disappointment in what could have been a special regular season. And while an 8-4 record is still good, those clad in Orange are left to wonder what could have been.

"It's a hard loss," Bowden said afterwards. "You would like to win every year so you don't have to experience what we're experiencing right now...They're a good team and we're a good team. We both played well today, they just had one play better than us."

The Gamecock offense rolled up 492 yards on the Clemson defense, easily the most the Tigers had allowed this season.

Yet in the end it came down to a pair of kicks. One was good. One wasn't. And the Gamecocks (7-5) celebrated loud and long on the Frank Howard Field turf far after the game had been completed.

"We played a good game, we were able to move the ball on offense and we got some stops there toward the end on defense," said USC head coach Steve Spurrier.

"We're just glad that we aren't on the bowl bubble anymore. We have seven wins now, and it isn't going to come down to us and Alabama. It doesn't matter where we go, we'll just go where they tell us and play."

South Carolina's game-winning drive began at its own 30 yard line. Blake Mitchell completed three passes on the drive, but it was one that - after review- was ruled incomplete which allowed the Gamecocks to take the lead.

On first and 10 at the Clemson 26, Mitchell threw sideways toward a receiver near the Clemson sideline. The play was broken up by Chris Chancellor, and as the ball rolled backwards the official ruled the toss a lateral. C.J. Gaddis recovered for Clemson at the USC 45, and the Tigers appeared to be in business.

But Spurrier challenged the ruling, and replays clearly showed the pass had indeed traveled forward. The call was reversed to an incomplete pass, and three plays later Ryan Succop banged in a 35-yard field goal to put USC on top, 31-28, with 7:51 remaining.

Clemson answered with a drive that began at its own 20. The running of Reggie Merriweather and C.J. Spiller (10 carries, 155 yards, 2 TDs), along with a clutch nine-yard completion from Will Proctor to Aaron Kelly on a third-and-eight play, moved the Tigers deep into USC territory.

By the time Clemson reached the Gamecocks' 12-yard line, Proctor and Co. were faced with a third and nine. Instead of running the ball to the middle of the field to position Dean for a game-tying field goal attempt of roughly 29 yards, the Tigers' braintrust opted to try one more pass.

The decision backfired when Proctor was sacked for a loss of 10 yards. That pushed Dean's field goal attempt back to 39-yards from the left hash; still well within the senior's range.

But Dean hooked the ball, and as it floated wide left the Gamecock fans in attendance exploded in celebration.

There were just 13 seconds left when Dean missed, and USC didn't have to run a play as the clock expired.

"We ran the ball (down the stretch) because we didn't want to throw and have a turnover," said Bowden. "They brought a lot of defenders to the line, so it was tough to get many yards...The sack at the end really didn't really hurt us. We had a play at the field goal and we just didn't succeed."

For a while it looked as though the Gamecocks would fall victim to their own mistakes.

Mitchell (23-of-36, 268 yards, 3 int.) was picked off on the game's first play, a turnover which led directly to Clemson's first score of the game. It came on a Proctor pass floated up the sideline to freshman Jacoby Ford, whose game-breaking speed turned the play into a 76-yard touchdown.

After USC answered with a Mitchell one-yard scoring plunge on the next possession, Spiller ripped off an 80-yard scoring jaunt to put the Tigers back in control, 14-7.

But Carolina would answer again with a 13-play, 96-yard drive that Cory Boyd capped off with a one-yard touchdown run to tie the game again early in the second quarter.

Toward the end of the period it looked as if USC would take the lead into the half, as Mitchell's deft passing pushed the Gamecocks deep into Clemson territory. But on first and goal from the Clemson eight, Gaines Adams deflected a Mitchell pass and Jock McKissic plucked it out of the air and rumbled 82 yards for a touchdown.

The score put Clemson on top 21-14 with :08 remaining in the half.

The Tigers extended the lead to 28-14 in the second half after Spurrier's decision to go for it on fourth and two from his own 39 backfired when Ricky Sapp batted down a Mitchell pass.

Three plays later it was Spiller again, this time sweeping left end for 31 yards and the touchdown, putting his team on top by 14.

But South Carolina would answer.

Mike Davis capped off a nine-play, 68-yard drive with a one-yard score to pull his team within 28-21 at 6:14 of the third quarter. And just minutes later, Clemson tight end Thomas Hunter fumbled after making a reception near the Gamecock sideline.

USC recovered at the Clemson 34, and moments later it was Davis again, this time from nine yards out for the game-tying score.

"It seemed like our fortune changed when we got that fumble over by our sideline," said Spurrier. "I think the quarterback threw it out into the flat for the tight end, and Cook made a play and it turned out to be big for us."

The Gamecocks had a chance to go up by a touchdown in the waning moments of the third quarter when defensive end Nathan Pepper intercepted a Proctor screen pass at the Clemson 34 and began rumbling toward the goal line.

But before he could cross the plane, James Davis stripped Pepper from behind, and the ball rolled out of the endzone for a touchback.

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