Only 33,425 people showed up Saturday to see South Carolina play Vanderbilt, and the Gamecocks have to be happy there weren’t any more witnesses for the first half.
South Carolina held off the Commodores 21-7 to retain the top spot in the SEC East, but it didn’t come easy — or pretty.
“We’re happy to get out of Vandy alive,” Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said. “Vandy plays us tough all the time. It’s always a struggle against these guys.”
With star freshman tailback Marcus Lattimore on the bench with a sprained ankle, the offense limped through the first half. Even with career performances from senior tailback Brian Maddox and sophomore wide receiver Tori Gurley, the Gamecocks were sweating well into the fourth quarter.
South Carolina didn’t put the game away until a scrambling Stephen Garcia found Alshon Jeffery down the right sideline for a 72-yard touchdown with 6:41 to go in the game.
“Coach Spurrier told us (at halftime) we are always a first-half team, so we have to start something new and be a second-half team,” Jeffery said.
They were that, gaining 315 of their 484 total yards in the second half. The 14 second-half points were twice as many as South Carolina had managed in its previous two road games this year.
The smallest crowd to see the Gamecocks play in more than a decade watched as they won their first SEC road game since Oct. 11, 2008, and improved to 5-2 overall and 3-2 in the SEC. Vanderbilt fell to 2-5 and 1-3.
Sophomore tailback Kenny Miles got the start for the Gamecocks, but Maddox got the finish. He had 23 yards in the first half but finished with a career-high 146 on 24 carries. He also scored on a 2-yard run with 3:17 left in the third quarter to put the Gamecocks ahead 14-7.
Gurley had topped his previous career high of four catches by halftime and finished with 13 receptions, one shy of the school’s single-game record, and a career-best109 yards. Jeffery added 158 receiving yards on nine catches. It was the first time in school history USC had a 100-yard rusher and two 100-yard receivers in the same game.
Garcia tied a career high with 31 completions and had 355 yards and two touchdowns for his fourth straight multiple-touchdown game.
Lattimore, who Spurrier said would “probably play,” dressed out for the game and warmed up with the team, but running backs coach Jay Graham advised Spurrier that Lattimore needed one more week to heal if possible, Spurrier said.
South Carolina’s special teams weren’t any more consistent than the offense. With a chance to get some cushion early in the fourth quarter, the Gamecocks had a 26-yard field goal attempt by Spencer Lanning blocked. Later in the quarter, Lanning pinned the Commodores at the 1-yard line with 8:23 left in the game, but that play was wiped out by an illegal formation. The ensuing kick gave Vanderbilt the ball at its 20-yard line.
Not that it made much difference thanks to the Gamecock defense, the only part of the team that played well for four quarters. USC held the Commodores to 250 yards, forced nine punts and held Vanderbilt to 3-of-15 on third-down conversions.
“Our defense played outstandingly,” Spurrier said. “We’re happy because we won the second half. As all of us know, we have not played the second half very well at all in our road losses. And we actually played the second half tonight. We need to continue that if we’re going to have a chance to have a big year.”
Reach Kendall at (803) 771-8496