THE USC FOOTBALL team came into Saturday night’s game against Furman needing to punch its ticket with a win before embarking on its first road trip of the season.
The No. 13 Gamecocks took care of business in a 38-19 home victory, but it didn’t come as easy as it first appeared. Nonetheless, they will leave Williams-Brice Stadium for the first time with just enough momentum to carry over to No. 16 Auburn, which defeated Clemson 27-24 in an overtime thriller.
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Going into the season, optimistic USC fans penciled in a 3-0 start. The schedule sets up nicely with the Gamecocks having an off-week after the Auburn game, which gives them time to prepare, and possibly heal up, for top-ranked Alabama.
USC gained 27 yards on the first play of the game and never looked back. Before the first quarter ended, the Gamecocks were up 14-0 and it seemed like they wouldn’t be challenged, especially after they extended the lead to 28-6 in the third quarter.
But the Paladins, a tradition-rich program at the FCS level, refused to roll over and found a way, thanks to an interception return for a touchdown and a long scoring pass on a halfback option, to stay in the game before the Gamecocks sealed the deal with an interception return for a touchdown of their own.
“Overall, it wasn’t our best,” coach Steve Spurrier said. “But we won the game, and we’re happy to move on.”
Perhaps the best part for the Gamecocks is they didn’t take this one for granted.
That may not sound like a big deal, but teams that want to put together big seasons must win all the games they’re supposed to win. Nothing will take the air of a season like a loss to an FCS program — just ask Ole Miss, which lost to Jacksonville State in the first week, and Virginia Tech, which lost to James Madison in the second week.
USC kicker Spencer Lanning said that’s why the FBS teams can’t afford to overlook their FCS counterparts.
“They circle their calendars. They look forward to (these games) their entire year. We’re their Super Bowl,” Lanning said. “Furman did a great job of coming in here and playing hard. They really gave us a good game.”
The last time USC played Furman in 1982, the Paladins pulled off a 28-23 upset. Spurrier spoke of the small difference between his team and Furman’s even today.
“Give those guys credit. They played tough and they played smart,” he said. “They’re a pretty good team.”
Spurrier was simply relieved his team had built a big enough lead to withstand the challenge. And he liked how cornerback Stephon Gilmore made a big play late with the 80-yard interception return as Furman was driving and down 31-19.
“That took their heart out,” he said.
In the end, the Gamecocks accomplished some of what they had hoped. At times, their passing game looked sharp, especially Stephen Garcia to Alshon Jeffery and Tori Gurley, although Garcia’s two interceptions took some of the steam out of his play. They gave a few carries to running backs not named Marcus Lattimore. They put serious pressure on the Furman quarterbacks, finishing with seven sacks, and shut down the Paladins’ running game. They got freshman quarterback Connor Shaw a little playing time.
But Spurrier lamented the mistakes on the offensive line, the interceptions that led to 10 points, and the big plays allowed to Furman receiver Adam Mims.
“We played pretty careless at times, which obviously gave Furman a chance to win tonight,” he said.
And Garcia knows that kind of effort is not going to be good enough in a week.
“We can’t play like that and beat Auburn at Auburn,” Garcia said.
He’s right. But on this day, winning was enough to get the Gamecocks where they want to be — in a conference showdown between a pair of ranked, unbeaten teams.