Steve Spurrier emerged from the locker room at Vanderbilt Stadium, walked near reporters and offered his take on the South Carolina player being interviewed.
“Play of the game right there,” Spurrier said. “Justice Cunningham.”
Indeed, the senior tight end’s fourth quarter 20-yard reception from Connor Shaw proved to be a difference-maker in the No. 9 Gamecocks’ 17-13 win Thursday night over Vanderbilt.
The catch, on the fifth play of the go-ahead drive, turned into a 35-yard gain when Vanderbilt defensive back Andre Hal launched into Cunningham and sent his helmet flying.
As Hal was flagged for a personal foul penalty, Cunningham enthusiastically climbed from the collision, the ball cradled in his arms.
Biggest catch of Cunningham’s career? Maybe. Hardest hit? Probably so, he said.
“I knew one was coming sooner or later,” he said. “I saw it coming. I saw he was standing in the zone. I just tried to make a big play.”
Spurrier called that big play “huge” on a night when South Carolina quarterbacks completed seven passes.
“The catch he made might go down in the history books here as one of the best catches around South Carolina,” Spurrier said Tuesday as his weekly press conference.
The longest pass play of the night came at the perfect time, said running back Marcus Lattimore, who scored the winning touchdown four plays later.
Just as important as the catch, Lattimore said, was Cunningham’s leadership throughout the game.
“Justice was talking us up the whole game,” Lattimore said. “He would not let us get down on ourselves.”
Cunningham, a game captain from Pageland, took Lattimore’s compliment in stride.
“I was reminding the team: This is what we worked hard for,” Cunningham said. “We knew adversity was going to come. Great teams play better in adversity. I wanted my team to know that.”
Shaw said he was proud of Cunningham and what the catch did for the drive.
“It really got the energy going for our team that we really needed at that point,” he said.
Cunningham had two passes thrown his way Thursday and was the only tight end targeted. The catch was the 28th of his career.
Like Spurrier, Cunningham was disappointed the passing game sputtered in the opener.
“I felt like we made a lot of big strides in the offseason. But we made big plays when it counted,” Cunningham said. “We didn’t get into a good groove, but we’re going to improve next week.”
As for that big hit, Cunningham said he knew he caught the ball. He wanted to make sure he held onto it.
“I didn’t get it as bad as it looked. I got to pop up right afterward,” he said. “It’s not something you’d like to get every day.”