SO WHO KNEW BUDDY Pough had so much riverboat gambler in his soul?
Heck, the guy grew up in Orangeburg, a stone's throw from the South Carolina State campus where he now plies his trade as the Bulldogs' coach. Closest thing to "gambling" in his hometown back then was bingo on Wednesday nights - and that was the Episcopalians.
But when you're coaching a lower-division team - even one coming in 3-0 and ranked No. 15 in the FCS - and going up against a South Carolina team fresh off a 16-10 manhandling of then-No. 4 Ole Miss, you figure: What have I got to lose?
So in the first half of Saturday night's 38-14 USC win, a game that all along figured to be a blowout - they don't do point-spreads for games involving FCS teams, but 35 points is a good number - Pough threw caution to the wind early and often.
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First, with S.C. State backed up on its own 2-yard line, quarterback Malcolm Long stepped back and heaved a 38-yard rainbow to receiver Tre Young, whose acrobatic catch got the Bulldogs out of the hole.
In fact, "if (Long) puts more air under the ball, that's 99 yards for a touchdown, you know," Pough said. "It takes a pretty cool guy to stand in that end zone knowing he'd better hurry and get that sucker out of there."
Not to mention a cool customer to call the play. That was with two minutes left in the first quarter.
Pough was just warming up.
Midway through the second quarter, facing fourth-and-1 at the USC 36, Pough decided to go for the first down. Tailback Will Ford's sweep left went 3 yards in the wrong direction, but so what?
"A situation like this, why the heck not?" Pough said. "Why punt it back to them? We could hardly stop them, and our defense was worn to a frazzle."
Then, with USC up 10-0 and 2:23 left until halftime, came the drive that woke up a sleepy crowd of 77,066 at Williams-Brice Stadium.
First, Long (who went unsacked for the game) hit Terrance Smith over the middle for 38 yards to the USC 35. Two more passes left the Bulldogs facing third-and-1 at the USC 5.
And here came the plus-sized Long - who, at a listed 235 pounds (which might have been correct in, oh, junior high) looks like a Greyhound bus more than a Maserati - busting inside after a fake to Ford and tumbling into the end zone 17 seconds before halftime. It was a result that left Pough gleeful and vindicated.
"I tell (his assistant coaches) all the time, 'Run that play with Malcolm,' " he said, grinning. "I made 'em run that, and I told (Long), 'Get your big fat behind (in the end zone).' "
The score suddenly was 10-7, and it was hard to decide which caused the most buzz: the halftime score or S.C. State's Marching 101 Band halftime show.
Riverboat gambler? Hey, why not? Pough was playing with house money: $230,000 of it, the Bulldogs' appearance fee - usually known as the "come get your whipping and go home" paycheck.
Pough, in his eighth season at S.C. State and fresh off last year's MEAC title, knows the rules of the game. His Bulldogs played two FBS teams in each of the past two seasons and, as expected, lost all four. Their lone previous visit to Williams-Brice, in 2007, the visitors played gamely before falling 38-3.
Saturday, S.C. State's woeful kicking game set up USC's three third-quarter touchdowns (a poor punt, a blocked field goal and a 36-yard Stephon Gilmore punt return). So now the count is 0-for-5, but if the final score looked like a repeat, Pough, USC coach Steve Spurrier and their teams knew better.
"South Carolina State is a good team, (and) we knew that," Spurrier said. "They played just as well as we did the first half - maybe better."
Late in the game, Long scored S.C. State's final touchdown with :04 to play, allowing the Bulldogs to leave town on an up note. So everyone got something out of the game. The Gamecocks got a win (and a brief scare, which isn't all bad) and the Bulldogs got a chance to measure themselves against a good (not great) SEC team before returning to the MEAC.
"They're certainly capable of winning their conference again," Spurrier said.
As for Pough, who learned his craft from ultra-conservative former S.C. State coach Willie Jeffries, he demonstrated he's his own man on the sidelines - one willing to take a shot at the impossible dream.
It was a gambler's dream; all he needed, he figured, was a few more lucky rolls of the dice.