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Gillespie: Victory doesn't have to look good

Columbia, SC 9/24/09 Gerry Melendez/gmelendez@thestate.com ---South Carolina senior wide receiver No. 9 Moe Brown breaks free for a long gain after a catch in the third quarter during the Gamecocks games against Ole Miss, at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, SC, Thursday, September 24, 2009.
Columbia, SC 9/24/09 Gerry Melendez/gmelendez@thestate.com ---South Carolina senior wide receiver No. 9 Moe Brown breaks free for a long gain after a catch in the third quarter during the Gamecocks games against Ole Miss, at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, SC, Thursday, September 24, 2009.

SO. IS THIS what USC fans are going to have to put up with all season long?

A hard-hitting, opportunistic defense; bruising runs by the Gamecocks' young-and-improving stable of backs; accurate passing, most of the time, from sophomore quarterback Stephen Garcia; and a string of chip-shot field goals by Spencer Lanning, whose count is up to nine, in 10 attempts (nice).

Oh, and let's not forget a propensity for coughing up a seemingly secure lead, playing havoc with the stomach lining of Steve Spurrier and USC fans, before rising to the occasion at the last minute - the plot, in other words, in Thursday night's white-knuckler of a 16-10 win over fourth-ranked Mississippi.

Will Steve Spurrier take that? You bet your sweet instep. Winning ugly beats losing any day.

"A wonderful victory for our team and our fans, for all Gamecocks," he said. "Obviously we struggled at times, but our defense was sensational.

"We did a lot of bad things, but we hung in there."

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde didn't do justice to the Gamecocks' performance before a national ESPN audience. For three quarters, USC dominated Ole Miss and quarterback Jevan Snead, the player Spurrier (or someone in his office with access to pen and ballot) voted the SEC's best, limiting him to 5-of-18 passing for a paltry 51 yards.

But then, almost as quick as you can say "sit on the lead," the Gamecocks - and especially Garcia - threatened to come apart like a cheap suit. After taking a 16-3 lead with 6:57 remaining in the third quarter, USC in the final 22 minutes mustered 17 yards in 15 plays - that's five consecutive three-and-outs if you're scoring at home - as their effective offense was suddenly nowhere to be seen.

And when Snead briefly broke out of his slump, hitting a wide-open Markeith Summers down the middle for a 45-yard touchdown with 9:47 to play, a crowd of 74,724 that for most of the game sounded a few thousand louder was suddenly shocked into near-silence.

Never did a six-point lead look as insecure. But in fact, Lanning's early work when USC's offense faltered inside the Mississippi "red zone" - his last field goal for a 9-3 lead came five minutes into the second half - wound up being the difference.

"Spencer Lanning was sensational," Spurrier said, using his word of the night one more time. "We gave him the game ball for his tackle on the punt return," when the diminutive Lanning brought down Ole Miss' Marshay Green after a 36-yard return to the USC 31.

The stage set for a seemingly certain Mississippi comeback, it remained for the Gamecocks' defense to win this one, which they did with three huge plays on Mississippi's final possession.

First, tailback Dexter McCluster, who carried four times for 17 yards in the first three quarters but was a yardage-eating beast in the final period (11 carries, 68 yards), looked to throw an end-around pass, tucked inside and prepared to run ... and was nearly decapitated by USC strong safety Darien Stewart for a 4-yard loss.

It was as if all the momentum the Rebels had built suddenly went away. Cliff Matthews reeled in Snead for a 1-yard loss, USC's fourth sack of the night, and on fourth-and-19 from the Gamecocks' 41, Snead's desperation throw was smacked down by, who else, Stewart.

"A lot of our defensive guys played their hearts out," Spurrier said. "Darien Stewart had a heckuva game."

Garcia, who started strong but looked inept in the fourth quarter (1-for-4 for eight yards, after a 15-of-30, 212-yard start), echoed that sentiment. Asked what his reaction would've been if told before kickoff that he would finish with twice the yards (220 to 107) and twice the completions (16 vs. 7) of his highly regarded counterpart, he grinned.

"I'd say we've got a (heck of) a defense," he said. "Our defense bailed us out. They played unbelievable."

USC's edge in total yards, passing yards and time of possession (seven minutes, 10 seconds) suggested a much easier victory. That's what it looked like ... for three quarters.

At the end, it looked like - well, not quite a "signature win." Even Spurrier said the team his players knocked off probably was not deserving of its No. 4 ranking.

But then, he's seen the other side, too. "We were No. 6 two years ago and lost our last five (games)," he said by way of history lesson.

Truth is, about all you could conclude from the finale was ... well, what Spurrier and Garcia and their cohorts said.

"(The Rebels) were No. 4, but where they end up, who knows?" the coach said. "Who knows where any of us will end up?"

Added Garcia, "It was a pretty ugly win, but it was a win. And we'll take that every time.

"It's the biggest win here in, like, forever. The biggest since I've been here; I don't know all the history."

Told the history - this was USC's first win over a top-five team since 1981, a 31-13 upset of No. 3 North Carolina in Chapel Hill - Garcia laughed.

"Wow," he said. "Well, we got it tonight."

Got it by winning ugly; USC fans might want to get used to the feeling.

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