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Last trip to Legion Field nothing to yell about

Thirty years later, Garry Harper can talk about South Carolina's trip to Birmingham, Ala., for the Hall of Fame Bowl.

But in the moments after the Gamecocks' 24-14 loss to Missouri at rainy Legion Field, the USC quarterback couldn't say anything.

Harper had yelled himself hoarse.

It was that kind of night for USC at the 1979 Hall of Fame Bowl, where the 16th-ranked Gamecocks fell to an unranked Missouri squad despite a 100-yard rushing performance by tailback George Rogers.

"I remember being wet and cold," Rogers said recently. "And we got beat."

USC is hoping for a better result - and weather - Saturday when it returns to Legion Field for a bowl game for the first time since the '79 game. The Gamecocks face Connecticut in the Bowl.

"It can't be no worse, can it? Unless there's snow on the ground," said Rogers, who plans to attend the game.

Rogers entered the third annual Hall of Fame Bowl with a streak of nine consecutive 100-yard games. The junior was voted a first-team All-American by The Associated Press, and his 1,500-plus rushing yards were second nationally behind Southern Cal's Charles White.

The Gamecocks went 8-3 during the regular season for the first eight-win season in school history. Missouri, a preseason top-10 team that stumbled to a 6-5 mark, was led by a pair of future pros - one in baseball (quarterback Phil Bradley, a major league outfielder from 1983-90) and one in football (tailback James Wilder, who played 11 NFL seasons).

It was USC's first bowl trip since Jim Carlen's first season in 1975, and Harper said there was a sense of excitement in Birmingham. Known officially as the Hall of Fame Classic, the Birmingham game was one of 15 bowls at the time; there are 34 this season.

"You could just tell you were being treated like a king. Back then the Hall of Fame Bowl was a good bowl game. Playing in that stadium was a big thing for us. We obviously hated to see the weather report," Harper said.

USC accounted for more than 20,000 fans in the crowd of 63,000. There were about 5,000 no-shows because of the weather, according to accounts from The State.

In other headlines of the day, Afghanistan - then as now - was in the news. President Jimmy Carter had sent a message to Leonid Brezhnev asking for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan.

In sports, Arkansas coach Lou Holtz denied having contact with Notre Dame about its possible vacancy.

And in Birmingham, the Gamecocks were in search of their first bowl win.

"It was a big deal for us. We went into it seriously. We prepared hard for it," Harper said. "It was a hard-fought game that we could have won. But Missouri was a good team."

USC surprised Mizzou by coming out in a no-huddle offense. Harper drove the Gamecocks down the field on their opening drive, which Harper capped with a 20-yard touchdown pass to Zion McKinney.

But the Tigers took advantage of a USC fumble and a short punt to score 17 unanswered points in the second quarter and never trailed again.

Harper was encouraged by the fast start. But yelling signals at the line of scrimmage caused Harper to lose his voice by halftime, prompting Carlen to abandon the no-huddle.

"That (no-huddle) kind of threw them into a tizzy. We moved the ball and everything was great," Harper said. "But for whatever reason, we got out of the no-huddle and went back to our normal offense. And at that point, they put a scheme in place and did a good job stopping us."

Missouri intercepted Harper in the second half to set up its final touchdown. Each of the Tigers' three touchdown drives covered 30 yards or less.

Bradley was named the game's MVP after running and throwing for a touchdown. And though Rogers was the offensive star with 133 yards on 25 carries, his totals could have been higher had he not kept slipping in the new cleats that were designed for wet games on artificial surface.

"That's what they told us to try if it rained," Carlen said. "It didn't work out like they said it would."

But neither Carlen nor Rogers blamed the loss on the "gripper" cleats.

"Missouri was a lot better football team than people gave them credit for," said Carlen, who is 76 and splits time between Columbia and Hilton Head. "Back then there weren't a ton of bowls, and when you played against someone like Missouri (from the Big 8) - that's a fine conference."

As USC tried to mount a second-half comeback, Harper kept getting driven into the unforgiving Astroturf. The NCAA did not keep track of sacks in 1979, but the statistics from the game show Harper had minus-48 rushing yards.

Harper, a salesman for an IBM re-seller in Spartanburg, estimates he was sacked six times.

"I remember doing a lot of running around," he said.

Until he couldn't. Harper had to be helped off the field after breaking his left ankle on a hit as he released the ball on the final play of the game.

Harper made the 10-hour drive to his Miami hometown the next day with no voice, his left foot in a soft cast and teammates Chuck Finney and Rubin Proctor sleeping most of the trip. Even had Harper been able to talk, there was not much to say.

"I was just ready to get home," he said.

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