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Coach sees signs of change

Steve Spurrier saw signs of progress in his South Carolina team Saturday, both in what he heard and didn’t hear during the Gamecocks’ 27-6 victory against Tennessee at Williams-Brice Stadium.

Despite a three-touchdown lead in the second half, Spurrier heard a smattering of boos from the home fans when the Gamecocks called three consecutive running plays for Mike Davis after Chris Smelley replaced an injured Stephen Garcia at quarterback.

But more intriguing to Spurrier was the noticeable muting of “Rocky Top” from the Tennessee pep band, which seemed to play the song on a continuous loop while the Vols were winning 14 of the previous 15 meetings against USC.

“The Tennessee band was there last night, weren’t they? I’m used to hearing ‘Rocky Top’ about 10 times. Did they play it at all? I can’t remember any of it,” Spurrier said Sunday. “Usually you hear that song — maybe they only play it after they score, I don’t know. Their crowd was very quiet last night.”

As the losses mount for Tennessee and the pressure on Phillip Fulmer intensifies, apathy appears to have set in around Vol Nation. The school returned 600 tickets that it could not sell to Saturday’s game, which drew a noticeably smaller — and quieter — contingent of Tennessee fans.

“When you play Tennessee, that ‘Rocky Top’ you hear so often, it’s sort of ringing in your brain a little bit,” Spurrier said. “Tell you the truth, I think maybe once I heard ‘Rocky Top.’ ”

But Spurrier did hear the boos directed at the conservative play calls. But with Garcia out and the defense playing well, Spurrier was content to keep the ball on the ground and run out the clock.

The Gamecocks ran 44 times while attempting 20 passes. The 10 completions were the fewest since USC completed seven passes in a 30-22 upset of No. 12 Florida in 2005.

But make no mistake: The win against Tennessee (3-6, 1-5 SEC), which has four conference losses by 12 points or more, is not on the same level as the Florida victory three years ago, according to Spurrier.

“We were favored over Tennessee (by 5 ½ points). We were supposed to beat them. And we could’ve beat ’em more if our offense had done a little bit more,” Spurrier said.

“Tennessee’s not what they have been in the past. We didn’t try to make it that big a deal. It was a good win, and they’re a decent team. They’re not a great team this year. We all know that. I think sometimes we put too many teams up on a pedestal and think they’re big, strong, tough teams, and we’re not. And that’s just not true.”

The Gamecocks’ defense has been ranked among the top teams nationally all season (currently No. 3) and shows no signs of letting up. Under first-year coordinator Ellis Johnson, USC leads the SEC in three categories after holding Tennessee to 207 yards and 11 first downs.

Meanwhile, the Gamecocks’ rushing attack remains stuck in neutral. USC hit its average with 101 rushing yards against the Vols, keeping the Gamecocks at the bottom of the SEC’s rushing statistics.

But Spurrier said he would not abandon the running game, particularly in situations like the Tennessee game when the Gamecocks are protecting a lead.

“Whatever it takes to win the game is more important than running up offensive stats,” he said. “I’m in charge of wins and losses, and that’s the priority.”

If that means fans boo when USC goes three-and-out following three consecutive runs by Davis, so be it.

“Somebody said the South Carolina program’s come a long way when a team gets booed and they win by 21 points over Tennessee,” Spurrier said. “I said, ‘Well, maybe our expectations have gone up a bit.’ But still, we’ve got a lot to work on. Especially us offensive coaches, we’re not pleased at all the way we performed here the last couple weeks. We’re going to try to get a lot better.”

Reach Person at (803) 771-8496.