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Gillespie: Not half bad, but USC focus still a worry

South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier reacts to a called timeout early in the game against Florida Atlantic.
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier reacts to a called timeout early in the game against Florida Atlantic.

JUST GUESSING HERE, but in previous years of the Steve Spurrier regime at South Carolina, halftime in the Gamecocks' locker room would've seemed to last a lot longer Saturday night than the actual 20 minutes.

After all, Spurrier historically is not known for keeping displeasure to himself. And the Gamecocks' coach had plenty of ammunition after a 30-minute performance that ran the gamut from inspired to insipid.

One point; that's what separated USC and Florida Atlantic, a three-touchdown underdog that was supposed to provide Spurrier's team with a lopsided victory to soothe last week's 41-37 loss at Georgia.

If not for Ross Gornall's missed extra point, the visitors from the Sun Belt Conference would have forged a 17-17 tie, which given the disparity between the two programs, would be like kissing your ugly half-sister for the Gamecocks.

So you might have expected the old Spurrier to spend halftime excoriating his troops for their mistakes, their lack of a killer instinct and their failure to close the deal. You'd have figured he would be ... well, "concerned" is the mildest word that comes to mind.

Didn't happen, he said.

"I've been concerned for five years, men," he said with a wry laugh. "(But) I've come to accept that every game is going to be a dogfight.

"I'm happy we got three touchdowns in the third quarter and got a little breathing room. But I always expect a dogfight. I expect a dogfight no matter who we play, whether it's Wofford or Furman; South Carolina State (USC's opponent two weeks from now) will probably take us to the wire."

Then he smiled - yep, smiled. "Maybe we have a chance to be a little different this year," he said.

Maybe. By the time USC and FAU trudged off the Williams-Brice Stadium turf at game's end, order had been restored courtesy of that 21-point third quarter by USC's offense and an improved showing by the defense. The 38-16 final looked a lot more like what was expected from this "cupcake" interlude in what is rated the nation's toughest schedule.

Still, no one who witnessed that first half was fooled. Riding a comfy 17-3 lead, the Gamecocks let FAU drive 57 and 75 yards for touchdowns in the final 8:53. Owls quarterback Rusty Smith looked like the NFL prospect he is billed to be, completing 8 of 11 passes for 85 yards and putting the USC secondary on its heels.

That the Gamecocks roared back after halftime spoke mostly to their superior talent. That they put themselves in that position raised questions about their focus.

Again, no one should be surprised. Certainly, Spurrier was not. USC, a team you'd like to put on a psychiatrist's couch some days, was primed for a letdown, and it wasn't helped by a crowd of 72,017 - the worst home attendance since a 2006 late-season win over Middle Tennessee State (70,442) - that seemed as lethargic as their team in the second quarter.

How embarrassing would a loss to Florida Atlantic have been? The Owls came in 1-15 vs. BCS conference teams. So at halftime, Spurrier's players shook themselves awake enough to win. And the coach found, if not comfort, then hope.

"Our defensive guys responded well," he said. "We shut them out, made a good goal line stand. And the offense rushed for the most yards (287, on 35 carries) since I've been here."

In the process, the Gamecocks' young stars-in-waiting learned a bit more about themselves. Tailback Kenny Miles made a strong case for more playing time with 56 yards on five attempts, and Jarvis Giles became the Gamecocks' first 100-yard rusher of 2009, gaining 117 while averaging 10.3 yards per carry.

And the defense that looked clueless just before halftime clamped down on the Owls. FAU's best effort died at the USC 5-yard line, and the fourth quarter was an opportunity for Spurrier to play a lot of people.

So what to make of all this? The Gamecocks got the feel-good win they needed heading into the meat of their SEC schedule - but not feel-good enough to give them any notions of smugness.

"We're not there yet," Spurrier said. "We should be a little bit better than we're doing - a lot better. (But) those are things hopefully our guys can learn from."

Don't be surprised, then, if Spurrier isn't secretly smiling to himself as he prepares for Ole Miss on Thursday. Saturday, his team got the win it needed to keep its season's hopes alive - and, he hopes, he got their attention.

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