In a season of gift-giving, South Carolina was on the receiving end Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
This USC victory came gift-wrapped with a card, bows and ribbons. All that was missing was a place under the Christmas tree for the Gamecocks’ 23-20 overtime victory against Florida.
“Somehow or another, it worked out,” Steve Spurrier said afterward. “Sometimes, you have to say it was meant to be. It was meant to be for us to win this one, and maybe it wasn’t meant to win two weeks ago.”
Three times this season, USC has been in the giving mood in heart-breaking losses to Missouri, Kentucky and, two weeks ago, to Tennessee. Each time, USC seemed to watch helplessly as opponents snatched what appeared to be certain wins out of the Gamecocks’ grasp.
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None of those could match the generosity of Florida, though.
“We had every opportunity to win,” said Florida coach Will Muschamp, in the understatement of the day.
It must be understood that USC’s special teams made the two biggest plays of the game. The Gamecocks’ offense also drove 34 yards in 27 seconds without a timeout for the tying touchdown at the end of regulation.
So, USC indeed made huge plays when it most needed to make them.
But you cannot overlook that Florida failed to execute on a chip-shot field goal attempt, then could not get off a simple punt. Either a successful field goal from 32 yards or any kind of punt down field would have sealed the win for Florida.
Those facts temper somewhat any belief that this was a sensational comeback at “The Swamp” for USC. Florida should have won this game, just like USC should have emerged victorious against Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee.
When Florida’s Frankie Velez lined up to boot a field goal with 3:31 remaining in regulation, there likely was not a fan among the announced crowd of 85,088 who believed USC would win. Florida led 17-10 at the time.
Brison Williams must have thought otherwise. He broke from the left side of the USC line and smothered the ball off the foot of Velez. USC had life, although it quickly seemed to toss aside that life jacket when the ensuing drive stalled at the Florida 41-yard line with 2:22 remaining.
After three Florida plays, all the Gators had to do was punt the ball.
This time, it was seldom-used Carlton Heard who had other ideas. Heard is a junior who is listed as a wide receiver, but he does not have a pass reception this season and is primarily employed on special teams.
Heard broke through the middle of the Florida line and blocked the punt, putting USC on a resuscitator for the second time. Four plays later, running back Mike Davis pounced on his own fumble in the end zone and the game was tied.
The overtime was anti-climactic. Its bubble burst and the job of Muschamp probably blown up with it, Florida did not seem to have the heart to win in the extra period. With new life, and more new life, USC was charged to win.
When quarterback Dylan Thompson ran 4 yards on a read-option keeper into the end zone, his USC teammates mobbed him and dogpiled in front of USC’s fans.
The victory came in the stadium that Spurrier christened “The Swamp” and where he built his legacy as one of the top coaches in college football history. His Florida teams over 12 seasons won a remarkable 69 of 74 games in this stadium. But none of those wins could have been more improbable than this one.
“It was a wonderful win for the Gamecocks,” Spurrier said. “Man, it was a good win for our team.”
Good, fortunate and grateful for the Florida gift-wrapping.