NASHVILLE - South Carolina had to dig deep to pull out a 17-13 win over Vanderbilt Thursday night in a nationally-televised game on ESPN.
Struggling and desperate for a spark, South Carolina's offense found it when Connor Shaw threw a early fourth-quarter strike to tight end Justice Cunningham.
Cunningham held onto the ball after withstanding a punishing blow from a Vanderbilt defender who was given a 15-yard penalty for hitting above the shoulder. Shaw, who was playing with a shoulder contusion, rushed 12 yards to the one-yard line before Marcus Lattimore punched it in a few plays later.
And just like that, No. 9 USC went from the jumping off the early-season upset ledge to victorious in front of 38,393 fans at Vanderbilt Stadium at Dudley Field.
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It probably was a hard game to stomach for the thousands of Gamecock fans who traveled to Nashville, as the atmosphere in the stadium was far different than the jubilant scene outside before kickoff.
Hours before the game began, hundreds of Gamecock fans gathered on and around 28th Avenue in the West End Vanderbilt University area of Nashville. The center of the activity was Jed's Sports Bar & Grille where My Carolina Alumni Club of Nashville, known asthe Nashville Gamecocks, hosted a tailgate event.
There was a steady stream of Gamecock fans to the area that is just across West End Avenue from Vanderbilt Stadium at Dudley Field.
The party overflowed the fenced-in grassy area of Jed's, where music pumped through speakers, and leaked into the street and spread to the adjacent Centennial Park. Gamecock fans swarmed the inside of Jed's and took over the bar's upstairs outdoor deck.
USC President Harris Pastides stopped by the Nashville Gamecocks tailgate. He left when it started raining, said J.W. Brunson, a Nashville Gamecocks board member. Many at the tailgate just crowded under tents-and continued partying.
A couple of brief, summer downpours couldn't dampen the buzz of expectation.
"It feels great, and I'm usually negative," Chandler Price said about the start of the season."It's a comforting feeling seeing how much confidence the team has," said Ben Hipp, who won a No. 21 jersey in a pre-game raffle at Jed's.
Jim Hanner left Columbia at 5 a.m. Thursday and picked up his brother, Mike, in Greenville at 6 a.m. Together they drove to Nashville, their 11th trip to Music City USA.
Jim has missed only two games-home or away-since 1974.
"We've been doing this a long time," said Mike, who, wasting no time to get into the season, wore an "I Hate Clemson" T-shirt. "We could tell you some stories."
David Watkins and his wife, Kelly, go to two away games each season. They had already planned to travel to LSU for the Oct. 13 game, and 10 days ago they decided to travel to Nashville.Like many Gamecock fans, they plan to spend their Labor Day vacation here.
"We'll make a whole weekend out of it," said David Watkins, who added he and Kelly would be at Friday night's Gamecock party at The Rutledge thrown by Camden native and Nashville-based musician and songwriter Patrick Davis.
When a reporter stopped by Jed's for a late-afternoon steak burger on Wednesday, bartender Albert Zampino made a prediction.
"What did I tell you," Zampino said on Thursday as he carried two buckets of ice inside the bar, "it's going to be just like Columbia here."
Reach Taylor at (803) 771-8362.