The most aptly-named player at the Outback Bowl put on a homecoming show Tuesday afternoon.
That would be Ace Sanders, who trumped Michigan at every turn in South Carolina’s 33-28 win. The native of nearby Bradenton came home and showed that just as there’s nothing better than an ace in golf or tennis, the same applies to football.
The 5-foot-8, 175-pound junior did it all for the Gamecocks. First he returned a first-quarter punt 63 yards for a touchdown. He went on to pile up a game-high nine catches for 92 yards, including touchdown receptions of 4 and 31 yards.
“He was sensational,” USC coach Steve Spurrier said, noting that Florida and Florida State didn’t recruit him. “They passed on him and said he was too little. But he can play football, that’s for sure.”
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Sanders has made big plays all season. He caught a team-high 45 passes for 531 yards and nine touchdowns. And he returned 27 punts for a school-record 429 yards, with two for touchdowns. His teammates love what the All-SEC performer brings to the field in energy and excitement.
“Me and Connor (Shaw) joke that it’s almost like a video game,” quarterback Dylan Thompson said. “He just goes out — the smallest guy on the field in most cases — and makes them miss. You look up, and he’s in the end zone. Seriously, he’s the definition of a playmaker. It was great for him (to have a big game) in his hometown.”
Sanders loved playing so well in front of family, friends, and former coaches. But he was determined to not let the buildup this week affect how he approached the game.
“I wanted to show something, but at the same time, I just tried to be patient and let the game come to me,” Sanders said. “I’ve found that when you actually press for stuff, it doesn’t really play out like you want.”
The punt return in the first quarter gave the Gamecocks a 14-3 lead. He fielded the long, lofting punt at the USC 37 on the right side of the field, found a seam and only had to get past the punter as he cruised into the end zone down the left side.
“Once I saw (blockers) Bruce Ellington and Brison Williams hold up the gunners, there was nobody else down the field,” he said.
His three touchdowns tied a bowl record by a South Carolina player. Running back Ryan Brewer scored three touchdowns in the 2001 Outback Bowl, a 24-7 victory against Ohio State. With the rushing attack going nowhere against the Wolverines, Sanders understood opportunities would come to him and the other receivers.
“If the ground game’s not moving, coach Spurrier is going to put it in the air,” Sanders said. “So, I told all the receivers to play confident and just play to your abilities. And that’s what everybody did.”
Michigan coach Brady Hoke called Sanders’ big plays a key in the game.
“Those things hurt your football team, obviously,” Hoke said. “It hurts the momentum and morale of what you want to do.”
But Sanders knew the win came down to the entire team making plays — and not just him living up to his name.
“We battled. In the fourth quarter, it went all the way down to the wire,” he said. “It just showed this team still has a lot of heart and a lot of fight, and we’ll be back next year and do the same thing over again.”