The South Carolina offense sputtered much of Saturday in Sanford Stadium. But when the Gamecocks desperately needed to put together a difference-making scoring drive against the Georgia defense, they did it.
Trailing 35-31 with a little more than six minutes to play, senior quarterback Stephen Garcia marched his team down the field in six plays that covered 79 yards, with the final three coming on a touchdown run by Marcus Lattimore.
That clutch performance took a little less than three minutes and gave USC a 38-35 lead, one it would not relinquish on the way to an SEC-opening victory. A pass interference call on third down kept the drive going and gave the Gamecocks a first down at their 32.
On the next play, Garcia scrambled right and hit receiver Ace Sanders on a perfectly thrown 30-yard pass on the sideline for a first down at the Georgia 38. Lattimore followed with a 36-yard gain, and two plays later, USC was on its way to a crucial victory.
"We hit Ace on that scramble play over there. It ended up working out," Garcia said. "It's kind of a blur right now. That was just a big win for us."
USC coach Steve Spurrier liked how his offense came through, especially Garcia's throw to Sanders.
"That was an unbelievable play," Spurrier said.
Although junior receiver Alshon Jeffery didn't make a play on that particular drive, he liked how the offense took charge.
"It was a big drive for momentum because we needed that to win the game," Jeffery said. "We never came behind from the fourth quarter to finish the game so that was good for us."
Although the offense piled up 395 yards, much of it on Lattimore's strong second-half running, it needed plenty of help from the defense and special teams to score points. The defense scored twice and set up another short touchdown drive with a long fumble return, while the special teams converted a fake punt into a touchdown.
Garcia completed 11 of 25 passes for 142 yards, but he made enough key plays to keep the Gamecocks within hailing distance. His only touchdown pass - a 34-yarder to Jeffery - gave USC its first lead at 7-6 in the second quarter.
That also came on a scramble play, when Garcia took off and found a leaping Jeffery in the end zone.
"It was a scramble play. Coach Spurrier tells us all the time when the quarterback's rolling out, just go deep," Jeffery said.
The junior receiver finished with five catches for 85 yards, which included a quick look-in for eight yards on fourth-and-three in the drive that ended with a field goal to give USC a short-lived 31-28 lead in the fourth quarter..
Garcia succinctly summed up what makes Jeffery his favorite target.
"He's open and he makes plays. That's all you can say about that," Garcia said.
You also can say the USC offense found a way to keep battling back. Jay Wooten's 49-yard field goal was the first of his Gamecock career, and he also drilled all six extra points.
"We were always in the game," Spurrier said. "We weren't two touchdowns behind or anything like that. We kept playing."
When the smoke finally cleared in the shootout that featured one hard-to-believe play after another, the No. 12 Gamecocks improved to 2-0 overall and 1-0 in the conference. Neither win was a thing of beauty, but the players didn't care.
"A win's a win. It doesn't really matter how it happens," Garcia said. "At the end of the year, it's a win. That's all that matters."
Jeffery seconded that motion.
"We view it as an ugly win, but we'll take it any day," he said. "Last year, we were just learning how to win the game. This year, we're building off what we did last year and just finishing the game."
Stephon Gilmore, Jadeveon Clowney