COLUMBIA, Mo. — A SOUTH Carolina team that has existed on the brink all season somehow lives another day.
Every USC coach, player and fan should attend church this morning and thank the divine powers that be for one more time allowing the Gamecocks to snatch victory from certain defeat.
The 27-24 final score hardly tells the story.
Just as it has done in almost every game this season, USC looked nothing like a nationally ranked club that could still win the SEC Eastern Division championship. This time, the 20th-ranked Gamecocks outdid themselves when it comes to pulling the proverbial rabbit out of the hat against previously undefeated and fifth-ranked Missouri.
Consider all this:
• USC played a bad first half in which its three best scoring chances were wasted with a missed field-goal attempt and two fumbles by the normally sure-handed running back Mike Davis.
• When Missouri booted a field goal midway through the third quarter, USC had spotted the Tigers a 17-0 lead that stood as the fourth quarter began.
• After the Missouri field goal, Steve Spurrier must have figured a one-legged Connor Shaw at quarterback was better than an able-bodied Dylan Thompson. Shaw came off the bench with a heavily bandaged left knee to rally the troops in what Missouri coach Gary Pinkel termed a “very courageous effort on (Shaw’s) part.”
• USC needed a perfectly executed eight-play, 63-yard drive to tie the score at 17 with 42 seconds remaining in regulation to force overtime.
Then USC watched as Missouri bounced a 24-yard field-goal attempt off the left upright in the second overtime, sending a sellout crowd home disappointed and triggering a wild on-field celebration by the Gamecocks.
“Thank God he hit that yellow field goal post at the end of the game,” said defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles afterward in best summarizing the feelings of an entire USC fan base.
USC has been here before this season when it allowed 15 unanswered points by Vanderbilt in the fourth quarter and hung on to win; trailed by 10 at halftime, then nearly blew all of an 18-point lead before holding off Central Florida; and watched a 20-point second-half lead nearly disappear in a victory against Kentucky.
If nothing else, USC has kept things exciting — OK, nerve-wracking — for its fans, most of whom probably have chewed their fingernails to the nub this season. That is likely where those nails were when USC found itself down 17-10 with 3:08 remaining in regulation.
The season was in the balance for the Gamecocks. A loss and USC would have been essentially eliminated from the SEC race and spent the remainder of the season positioning itself for yet another Outback Bowl appearance.
What should forever be known as The Drive to USC faithful began at its 37-yard-line. Only a touchdown would do to force overtime, so USC put the game’s outcome into the hands of its two standouts on offense — Shaw and Davis, and it is worth recounting every play of The Drive.
Shaw’s first pass of The Drive missed tight end Rory Anderson and fell incomplete. Then Shaw’s bullet over the middle of Missouri’s defense found the diving, outstretched hands of Bruce Ellington for 20 yards.
USC had penetrated Missouri territory and faced a first-and-10 at the 43 with a little less than 3 minutes remaining. Shaw connected with Davis on a middle screen that covered 13 yards, then took off out of the pocket for 6 yards to the Missouri 30.
Two minutes were left when Shaw slipped consecutive middle-screen passes to Davis, the first for 8 yards and the next for 15 to the Missouri 1-yard line.
As the clocked ticked under 1 minute, Davis was stuffed up the middle for a 1-yard loss. Then Shaw rolled out to his left, threw across his body and found Nick Jones alone just inside the end zone for a 2-yard touchdown.
Elliott Fry’s extra-point kick tied the game with 42 seconds remaining. The Drive will go down as a game-tying one, but anyone who watched it will remember it as the one that saved — once again — USC’s season.
“It just worked out tonight,” Spurrier said. “That’s all you can say, it was meant to be.”
And USC apparently was meant to live another day.