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Going up? USC hopes so

South Carolina senior linebacker No. 40 Eric Norwood and head coach Steve Spurrier celebrate their win over Ole Miss, at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, SC, Thursday, September 24, 2009.
South Carolina senior linebacker No. 40 Eric Norwood and head coach Steve Spurrier celebrate their win over Ole Miss, at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, SC, Thursday, September 24, 2009. The State Media Company

Steve Spurrier can cross another item off his to-do (things that never have been done before) list.

South Carolina's 16-10 win against No. 4 Mississippi on Thursday was the first home victory against a top-five team in school history.

But you only have to go back two years to find a stirring Thursday night win at Williams-Brice Stadium that was similar in look and feel - right down to linebacker Eric Norwood's postgame interview with ESPN sideline reporter Erin Andrews.

Kentucky came to Columbia in 2007 with an undefeated record, No. 8 ranking and a prolific offense triggered by a quarterback touted as a Heisman Trophy candidate.

USC exposed the 5-0 Wildcats as impostors in the 38-23 win, spoiling Andre Woodson's Heisman hopes and sending Rich Brooks' squad sliding out of the polls. Kentucky finished 8-5 and unranked.

But the Gamecocks' fall that season was more precipitous and gruesome than Kentucky's. A week after beating the Wildcats, USC won in Chapel Hill to improve to 6-1 and climb to No. 6 in the polls, its highest ranking in 23 years.

But the Gamecocks did not win again and spent bowl season like the rest of us - watching games on TV with a bag of Doritos and a cold beverage.

So when someone asked Spurrier if Thursday's win was one of his biggest at USC, the Head Ball Coach wasn't biting.

"I can't say that. I think the win over Kentucky two years ago here was very similar," Spurrier said. "But who knows how good everybody is. This isn't the number one or two team from last year. Ole Miss is a good team, but it's early in the year, and who knows where they're going to end up.

"You can remember two years ago we were No. 6 in the country at one time and managed to lose our last five."

USC likely will crack the polls this week and be 4-1 heading into the Oct. 10 game with Kentucky after the Gamecocks handle S.C. State.

But there are two legitimate top-five teams remaining on the schedule, as well the potential land mines SEC teams must navigate every week - not to mention USC's Thanksgiving weekend date with its neighbor to the north.

As Spurrier said, who knows where the Gamecocks will end up.

There are signs this could be a big year for USC. Quarterback Stephen Garcia has played better than anyone would have imagined after the way he finished last season.

The right-hander from Tampa outplayed Ole Miss' Jevan Snead and showed grit by staying in the pocket against a Rebels defense that sacked him four times, harassed him all night and left him with bruised ribs.

Garcia's efforts even drew a compliment from Spurrier, who has been conservative with praise for his quarterback.

"He got hit hard a couple of times and hung in there," Spurrier said. "We're proud of Stephen for hanging in there. Sometimes it's tough behind this offensive line when you play against good teams."

Spurrier said first-year offensive line coach Eric Wolford was beginning to see some of the things that have frustrated Spurrier the past four-plus years: protection breakdowns, costly penalties and mental errors.

"I don't know what it is, but our guys make a lot of mistakes," Spurrier said.

But Wolford does not stand idly by as the mistakes mount. He benched left tackle Jarriel King in the second half against Ole Miss and put in Kyle Nunn, a Sumter native who logged the most significant minutes of his career.

Defensively, the Gamecocks have covered up their shortcomings and injuries with speed, which was on display again Thursday as USC bottled up the nation's third-highest scoring offense.

And though the injuries along the interior line continue to pile up, the defense should remain fast and furious for as long as Norwood, Cliff Matthews and the defensive backs stay healthy.

Unlike the '07 team, these Gamecocks do not want their Thursday night upset of a top-10 team to stand as the season's high point.

"I was telling the guys in the locker room, this is the first of many," Garcia said. "We're getting better every single week."

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