South Carolina needed to play a perfect game on offense to defeat fifth-ranked Auburn on Saturday night at Jordan-Hare Stadium. The Gamecocks nearly did.
Nearly perfect translated in a 42-35 defeat.
“We had a chance,” Steve Spurrier said afterward. “We knew we had to play close to perfect on offense and special teams, and we didn’t do it. So we got beat. It was almost a fun one, almost a fun one.”
With a defense that allowed Auburn to score on six of nine possessions, including drives that covered 92, 93, 75, 88, 75 and 80 yards, USC’s offense was forced to counter-punch the entire evening. The Gamecocks were up to the task, but failed to score on six of 11 possessions.
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Three empty possessions that concluded with interceptions proved the difference. Dylan Thompson, who produced a career performance, tossed passes that were picked off when USC advanced to the Auburn 12-, 18- and 41-yard lines.
The latter interception was a desperation heave on the game’s final play.
“We messed up down there in the red zone a couple of times,” Spurrier said, “or else we had a chance.”
It was a shame, mostly for Thompson. He completed 29 of 50 passes for a career-high 402 yards. His five touchdown passes tied the USC record held by five others, the last of whom was Syvelle Newton against Florida Atlantic in 2006.
This marked the third consecutive game that USC’s offense has clicked. The 535 total yards meant the Gamecocks have topped the 500-yard mark in three consecutive games. Their 30 first downs were two shy of the season-high against Kentucky.
USC’s offense made Auburn’s defense look like, well, like the Gamecocks’ defense. The Tigers were on their heels the entire evening with Spurrier on top of his game in both play-calling and emptying his bag of tricks.
Six times USC never hesitated and kept the punting unit on the sideline on fourth down. Five times the Gamecocks were successful, including a fourth-and-6 on their 40-yard line in the third quarter when Thompson hit Pharoh Cooper for 9 yards.
In the first quarter, USC unveiled a shovel pass that went from Thompson to Cooper for 18 yards. On the next play, Thompson, who seldom moves out of the pocket to throw, rolled out and hit Cooper for 14 yards.
On a fourth-and-2 at its 33 in the second quarter, Thompson ran the option and pitched the ball forward to Mike Davis. It was considered a forward pass, and when Davis caught the ball he had enough open space to gain 18 yards.
Also in the second quarter, USC successfully completed an end-around pass to Thompson, who started the play by handing off to Damiere Byrd. Cooper took a backward flip from Byrd and tossed a 14-yard strike across the field to Thompson.
On another play in the first half, Thompson ran toward the line of scrimmage, stopped and threw a pass toward the sideline. Shamier Jeffery caught the pass, and even though it gained only 4 yards, it clearly had the Auburn defense wondering what the heck was coming next.
There was more. In the third quarter, Davis operated out of the wildcat formation, took the snap from center and ran for 6 yards. A little later in the same quarter, Cooper operated out of the wildcat formation and stunned everyone by throwing a deep pass toward Shaq Roland. Cooper threw the ball some 40 yards down field, but overthrew Roland, who had a step on the Auburn defender.
Things were going so well for the USC offense that when it faced a third-and-2 at the Auburn 33 late in the third quarter, Thompson began dancing to the blaring music on the public address system as he awaited the play being signaled from the sideline.
Thompson then handed off to Davis who gained 3 yards and a first down.
It got to the point where you kind of expected Thompson’s long throw to the end zone on the game’s final play to somehow fall into the hands of one of his receivers. It was not to be. Auburn’s Jonathan Jones spoiled the party by intercepting the pass in the end zone.
“It was almost an improbable win,” Spurrier said, “but it didn’t work out.”
Near perfection was not enough.