GAINESVILLE, Fla. — This was a sight Florida fans had savored countless times over the years: Steve Spurrier on the sideline for another Gators’ rout at the Swamp.
But this time Spurrier was on the receiving end of it.
Two years ago, Florida needed a blocked field goal on the game’s final play to beat South Carolina 17-16 and keep its national title hopes alive.
This one was over in the first quarter.
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The third-ranked Gators turned three USC turnovers into 21 points Saturday and buried the No. 24 Gamecocks 56-6, handing Spurrier his worst career loss on a gray, damp day at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
And though his former school has made a habit of blowing out teams this season, never before had a Spurrier-coached team lost by such a margin.
Not with Duke. Not with the Washington Redskins nor the Tampa Bay Bandits. Never.
Yet, Spurrier arrived in the postgame interview in a surprisingly upbeat mood. Of course, he had the final three quarters to come to grips with the loss, which eclipsed a 45-3 defeat to Tennessee in 1990 during Spurrier’s first year at Florida as his most lopsided.
“I felt a lot worse two years ago than I did this one,” Spurrier said. “We got royally beat. ... It got out of hand early.”
USC (7-4, 4-4 SEC) fell to 0-12 in Gainesville and dropped its 23rd consecutive game to a team ranked in the top 3, dating to a 31-13 win at third-ranked North Carolina in 1981.
Florida (9-1, 7-1) must beat Florida State on Nov. 29 and Alabama in the SEC championship game for a shot at its second national title in three years.
The Gamecocks’ defense allowed a season-high 519 yards, more than twice its league-leading average (256.5) entering the game.
Florida became the first team in SEC history to win six consecutive conference games by 28 points. The Gators’ fifth game with at least 42 points tied Oklahoma for the longest active streak in the country.
“We knew that South Carolina had the No. 1 defense in the SEC,” Florida’s Percy Harvin said. “We thought our offense was the best and we had the best running backs, so we had something to prove.”
Reigning Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow accounted for three touchdowns, four fewer than his total last year against the Gamecocks. Harvin was the star with 167 rushing yards on eight carries, highlighted by touchdown runs of 26 and 80 yards.
USC’s defense started out strong, forcing a turnover and a punt on the Gators’ first two possessions.
But it all fell apart for the Gamecocks during a nightmarish two minute, 15 second span that unfolded in the shadow of the north end-zone stands where Spurrier’s name is emblazoned among Florida’s Ring of Honor.
Call it the two-minute drilled.
Chris Smelley, who alternated with Stephen Garcia nearly every play for the second game in a row, threw a pair of interceptions in a three-play sequence of a scoreless game to start the bleeding.
Linebacker Brandon Spikes picked off an ill-advised pass by Smelley, who threw it off his back foot while retreating from the Gators’ rush, and returned it 12 yards for a touchdown.
Ahmad Black got Smelley on the Gamecocks’ next possession, intercepting a deflected pass on a hitch route. On the Gators’ first play, Harvin darted through the heart of USC’s defense for a 26-yard touchdown run and a 14-0 lead.
“Even at 14 to nothing, that made it difficult,” Spurrier said. “Almost from there, we’re playing to keep it respectable, and we couldn’t do that.”
Next, the Gamecocks tried a trick play that blew up on them.
On the ensuing kickoff, Dion LeCorn threw a lateral across the field to Chris Hail, a backup receiver who has not caught a pass all season.
Hail failed to pull this one down, too. James Smith scooped up the loose ball and appeared to dive into the end zone. The replay official determined Smith was down at the 1, but the ruling just delayed the inevitable.
Three plays later, Tebow barreled in for a 1-yard touchdown that put the Gators up three touchdowns with 2:22 left in the first quarter. Florida has outscored its opponents 101-0 in the first quarter its past six games.
“We came out and made some mistakes early. I made some mistakes personally, and it kind of got down and we weren’t able to dig ourselves out,” Smelley said. “We knew we had to have a solid first quarter and make a statement early. We didn’t do that.”
Leading big, Florida spent the rest of the game showing poll voters, at least those still watching, its team speed as the Gamecocks’ spirits sunk.
The track meet included nine plays that covered 20 yards or more. USC’s longest play was a 16-yard reception by tailback Mike Davis and its only scores came on a pair of Ryan Succop field goals.
“I didn’t think they were that much better than us,” Garcia said. “But a lot of things went wrong for us, especially on offense.”
The Gators made a believer out of USC receiver Kenny McKinley.
“They better win the national championship,” he said. “I can’t really see a team that can handle those guys.”
Reach Person at (803) 771-8496.