NO LONGER IS it a pattern with this South Carolina football team. It’s how you define the Gamecocks: They play to the level of their competition. And, somehow, someway, USC continues to win doing it that way.
Steve Spurrier admitted as much following 11th-ranked USC’s 19-14 victory against Florida at Williams-Brice Stadium.
“Somehow or another, it worked out again,” Spurrier said in his opening remarks to the media.
A couple of minutes later, he repeated the refrain.
“Somehow or another, it worked out for us,” he said.
Then, again, a few minutes later.
“I think it was just meant to be for us to win this one tonight,” he said.
Understand, this was not a great Florida team by any stretch of the imagination. The once-proud Gators have been relegated to irrelevancy. A five-game losing streak puts Florida into the position of not qualifying for a bowl game for the first time since 1979.
This Florida team has lost 10 players, including seven starters, to season-ending injuries. It started a third-string quarterback, redshirt freshman Skyler Mornhinweg, who never had taken a snap under center in a college game.
Yet, there was Florida, clinging to a 14-13 lead with seven minutes remaining in the game. This was the same Florida team that was a 13-point underdog, easily the largest point spread a USC team carried against a Gator squad.
True to what has become form this season, USC struggled the entire evening. The Gamecocks’ offense never seemed in sync, with quarterback Connor Shaw missing open receivers and Mike Davis nursing nagging injuries. USC’s defense — at least in the first half — could not stymie a Florida offense that clearly did not have enough confidence in Mornhinweg to throw the ball — at all.
We should have expected this. USC has been favored in eight games this season and has failed to cover the point spread five times. It did so in wins against UNC, Arkansas and Mississippi State. But in wins against Vanderbilt, Central Florida and Kentucky, the Gamecocks hung on at the end and did not cover the point spread. Of course, USC lost after being a touchdown favorite at Tennessee.
Most frustrating for USC and its fans Saturday was the Gamecocks’ inability to put the ball in the end zone. Part of that had to do with Florida’s defense, which ranks first in the SEC in most categories and proved dominant at times.
USC settled for four field goals, which goes against Spurrier’s principle of winning football. When he was running up big scores as Florida’s coach, Spurrier taunted opposing coaches for kicking field goals instead of scoring touchdowns.
“A bunch of field goals by our team,” Spurrier said. “We won one doing it that way. Usually, you lose those, but tonight we won one.”
Even USC’s lone touchdown was not really by design. Trailing 14-6 early in the third quarter, USC faced a fourth-and-3 at the Florida 32 when Shaw scrambled out of the pocket.
Had it not been fourth down, Spurrier said Shaw likely would have thrown the ball out of bounds. Instead, Shaw heaved a ball deep out of desperation toward the end zone, where the Florida defender turned the wrong way and fell as it floated into the hands of Bruce Ellington for a touchdown.
“That’s what I’m saying,” Spurrier said. “That’s when you know it’s meant to be, when things like that happen.”
Once again, USC counted its good fortunes in a win. In so doing, the Gamecocks extended their all-time best home winning streak to 16 games. They kept alive hopes of winning the SEC Eastern Division championship. They ran their record to 8-2.
No matter how you define this team as playing down to the competition, years from now none of that will be remembered. Folks will not look back and say this team did not play well and looked ugly in winning many of its games.
They will remember that USC won, as it continues to do.