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Commentary: Is young Carolina the 'New Carolina'?

University of South Carolina fans celebrate the Gamecocks 34-17 victory over Clemson University with No. 9 Moe Brown at Williams-Brice Stadium in 2009.
University of South Carolina fans celebrate the Gamecocks 34-17 victory over Clemson University with No. 9 Moe Brown at Williams-Brice Stadium in 2009.

It sounded a bit hokey and contrived whenever a South Carolina player, usually receiver and captain Moe Brown, would mention the team's "new Carolina" motto this season.

It smacked of the vow Lou Holtz made about five years into his USC tenure to "change the culture" of mediocrity around the program. A couple of 5-7 seasons later, Holtz was on his way to the ESPN studios in Connecticut.

Cynics rolled their eyes at the "new Carolina" talk when the Gamecocks went on the road and lost to Tennessee and Arkansas. But before the wheels came off another promising season, USC went toe-to-toe with No. 1 Florida for three quarters.

Though the Gamecocks fell to the Gators 24-14, they played well enough that you thought if they did that for 60 minutes against Clemson, they would have a chance.

And save for however long it took C.J. Spiller to go 88 yards with the (second) opening kickoff, USC put together a complete game that salvaged a solid season. Seven wins is what many observers, including this one, forecast for the young Gamecocks.

USC honored nine seniors at Saturday's game, only seven of whom arrived on scholarship. Compare that with the 19 seniors Clemson sent out for the coin toss.

Linebacker Eric Norwood is the lone certified star among USC's seniors, but the group clearly had something that was missing the past couple of seasons.

Call it leadership, a presence, "new Carolina"- whatever that quality is that kept the locker room from imploding as it did last year when the season could not end soon enough for several players and a couple of coaches.

"We've got a different team than last year," USC coach Steve Spurrier said Sunday. "We really got in disarray. Players going to the NFL. Some guys leaving. And we had several coaches on the way out. We're a much more united team. Guys like each other. And we had good spirit (Saturday)."

Senior offensive lineman Garrett Anderson embodied that spirit against the Tigers. The Dutch Fork High graduate started 13 games last season, but was in and out of the lineup this year after the arrival of first-year offensive line coach Eric Wolford.

Anderson got the start at left guard Saturday in what looked like a nice gesture for a local kid playing his final home game. But when Alshon Jeffery fumbled in the first quarter in Clemson territory, Anderson dived into a pile of orange and came out with the ball.

Though the drive would end with an interception, Anderson's hustle set the tone on a day where the Gamecocks appeared more willing to sacrifice their bodies than the Tigers, who still have this week's ACC championship game against Georgia Tech in front of them.

"Garrett Anderson probably played his best game he's ever played as a Gamecock," Spurrier said. "I know we're always getting on him to try to play a little faster, play with more effort. But he probably was the best offensive lineman out there for us."

There were others whose effort was commendable. Tight end Weslye Saunders made a play like Anderson's when he out-fought a Clemson defender to retrieve Brian Maddox's fumble.

With their backside pursuit, USC defenders left Spiller little room to run. Stephen Garcia had three touchdown throws, and freshman cornerback Stephon Gilmore made plays in all three facets after Spurrier finally broke out the WildCock formation.

It might be tempting to view this as the game the Gamecocks turned the corner. But the last time Spurrier said something along those lines was after beating Clemson in 2006, and the Gamecocks are 21-17 since.

So Spurrier preached restraint after his second victory against Clemson. But he has to like how the future looks.

Garcia has two more seasons left and is only going to get better. The team's top juniors have said they plan to return rather than jump to the NFL. And 27 of the 47 players listed on the offensive and defensive depth chart this week are freshmen and sophomores, including tailback Kenny Miles, receivers Tori Gurley and Jeffery and the aforementioned Gilmore.

Spurrier believes the improved team chemistry should become a staple "the next four or five years because we've got a bunch of freshmen playing that are excellent team guys and will eventually be our leaders."

In other words, the "new Carolina" could become the standard.

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