Standing in a cold and windblown rain in a nearly empty stadium at the SEC’s farthest-flung bowl outpost, Steve Spurrier was smiling.
After being presented the Duck Commander Independence Bowl championship trophy following a 24-21 victory over Miami, the Gamecocks’ 10th-year head coach asked the handful of South Carolina fans remaining how many had been there for the last four bowl victories.
“This one is just as much fun as those other three,” Spurrier told them.
He might be the only one who thinks that after a season that started in the top 10 and ended in Shreveport, but he gladly defended his position later in his postgame news conference.
“Hey, 7-6 or 6-7? Like I said out there on the field, this one feels as good as any of them,” said Spurrier, who avoided the second losing season of his 25-year college career.
The Gamecocks have won four straight bowl games for the first time in school history, although the previous three came on New Year’s Day or later in Florida after 11-win seasons.
“Seven-and-six rather than 6-7, that’s huge,” Spurrier said. “I have said all along, ‘Dang it, these bowl games are about the most important games of the year because you don’t play again until the end of August, September. We all talk about this one for seven or eight months. It’s a huge game.”
Meanwhile, the Hurricanes (6-7) lost their fourth straight game.
“Give South Carolina a lot of credit,” embattled Miami coach Al Golden said. “They made some explosive plays that obviously changed the game for them. We played hard. We didn’t play well, but we played hard.”
The win, which came in front of announced crowd of 38,242 in Independence Stadium, was South Carolina’s first at the Independence Bowl and Spurrier’s first against the Hurricanes.
“We just wanted to finish on a high note,” said senior quarterback Dylan Thompson, who was 22-of-34 for 294 yards and two touchdowns in his final game at South Carolina. “That’s a cliché, but we really wanted to go out with a bang and a big win.”
That win was in doubt until Thompson and the Gamecock offense did something they had been unable to do several times earlier in the season, run out the clock with a key first down. South Carolina appeared to put the game away with a 2-yard touchdown run by Thompson with 4:13 remaining that put the Gamecocks up 24-14, but Miami scored quickly, pulling to within 24-21 on an 11-yard pass from Brad Kaaya to Phillip Dorsett with 2:16 remaining.
The Hurricanes kicked the ball deep rather than attempt an onsides kick and South Carolina closed out the game with a 3-yard run by Mike Davis on third-and-1.
“We finally made a first down to win a game at the end,” Spurrier said. “When we scored with 4:13 left, a lot of the guys said, ‘They are a running team, they can’t throw it.’ I said, ‘No, no, no, they will (score), onside kick, we’ll have to get it and make a first down. You wait and see.’ I hate to predict like that, but They decided to kick it deep, and we finally made a first down to put it away and consume the clock.”
Sophomore wide receiver Pharoh Cooper was named the game’s offensive MVP after catching nine passes for 170 yards and scoring the Gamecocks first points with a 78-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter. South Carolina was held to season-low 60 rushing yards.
“I tell you, every now and then we think we can run the ball. We say, ‘Let’s see,’ and we, whew, we can’t run the ball at all,” Spurrier said. “I finally said, ‘We are going to chuck it down the field and see what happens,’ so we started chucking it down there.”
The Gamecocks defense allowed 422 yards but held Miami to 21 points, well below its opponents’ regular season average. South Florida native Skai Moore, a linebacker who was not offered a scholarship by the Hurricanes until the morning of signing day, was the game’s defensive MVP, after recording a game-high 11 tackles.
“It’s going to be pretty sweet now definitely. I’ve got a little bragging rights now. I can go home and not here my friends in my ear,” Moore said. “Before the game, we were talking about we need to go out with a bang and show the coaches we are a good defense.”