South Carolina fans had to hold their breath most of Saturday, but in the end it was worth it.
The No. 11 Gamecocks first sweated out a 43-38 Auburn win over Georgia that came down to a miracle fourth-and-18 touchdown heave, and then they allowed reeling Florida to hang around long enough to make their own eventual 19-14 victory more stressful than it should have been.
“I guess that’s why people watch football on television, games like the one (Auburn and Georgia) had,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. “Ours was pretty interesting, too.”
South Carolina (8-2 overall, 6-2 SEC) now trails No. 9 Missouri by one game in the SEC East. The Gamecocks own the tiebreaker with the Tigers thanks to their 27-24 double overtime win over Missouri on Oct. 26 so if the Tigers to lose one more game, South Carolina will go to Atlanta on Dec. 7 for the SEC championship game.
Beating Missouri (9-1, 5-1 SEC) is up to Ole Miss or Texas A&M. If either the Rebels (7-3, 3-3 SEC) or the 10th-ranked Aggies (8-2, 4-2 SEC) do it, South Carolina will win its second SEC East title in four years.
However, Spurrier and his players insisted they won’t pay much attention to Missouri as they prepare to play Coastal Carolina and No. 8 Clemson in the final two weeks of the season.
“We will just watch what Missouri does from afar and not worry about it too much,” Spurrier said. “We will worry about Coastal and try to beat those guys.”
In reality, that will be difficult.
“It’s going to be hard because we are leaning on them, but we have to focus on what we have to do against Citadel and Clemson,” wide receiver Bruce Ellington said.
“Not Citadel. Coastal,” defensive end Jadeveon Clowney corrected.
“Coastal,” Ellington quickly interjected with a laugh.
It was all smiles for the Gamecocks after they won their 16th straight home game in front of 83,853 fans at Williams-Brice Stadium. The home winning streak is a school record and the longest active streak in the country.
“That’s pretty good for us,” Spurrier said. “Proud of our players. Our players play like winners. At halftime, there wasn’t much joy in our locker room and obviously afterward we had a happy bunch of Gamecocks.”
Florida’s coaches and players couldn’t say the same. Gators head coach Will Muschamp came to his news conference with bloody knuckles which he said came from punching a chalkboard. Florida has lost five straight for the first time since 1979 and fell to 4-6 overall.
“We have a lot of negativity out there and these guys pulled together and showed what those guys are about,” Muschamp said. “It's frustrating for that locker room. Forget me. These kids have fought their butts off. Our fans need to get a grip. We have a bunch of kids in that locker room that are fighting their butt off. They can criticize me all they want. They pay me enough money for that. Those kids don't deserve it. Nobody has every questioned their effort. We just didn't get it done.”
The Gators came in a 13.5-point underdog, losers of four straight and on their third quarterback of the season but led until South Carolina place-kicker Elliott Fry hit a 22-yard field goal with 6:43 left in the game to give the Gamecocks a 16-14 edge.
South Carolina completed its third straight six-win SEC season, something it had never done until 2011. Gamecock quarterback Connor Shaw was shaky most of the night, completing 14-of-28 passes for 213 yards, but made history of his own, winning his 24th career start to tie Todd Ellis’ school record.
“I have plenty of time after I am done to look back on that,” Shaw said. “I am just going to continue trying to help my team win.”
For most of Saturday afternoon, Gamecock fans were more concerned with what was happening in Auburn, Ala., where the Tigers blew a big lead and then won on a 73-yard Hail Mary touchdown. The importance of that game resulted in an odd scene Saturday night with 3:03 left in the third quarter in Williams-Brice Stadium.
As the Gamecocks kickoff team waited on the field for a television timeout to end, the video board at Williams-Brice showed the final seconds of the Georgia game. When the action on the screen switched back to South Carolina’s game, the crowd booed.
“I noticed the fans were watching, but we were in the huddle so I really wasn’t paying attention to it too much,” Shaw said.
The Gators entered the game last in the SEC in yardage and things seemed to get worse before the game when Florida announced starting quarterback Tyler Murphy, who began the season as a backup but took over the job when Jeff Driskel suffered a broken leg, wouldn’t be able to play due to a shoulder injury. In Murphy’s place, the Gators inserted freshman Skyler Mornhinweg, who had never taken a collegiate snap, much less thrown a pass.
Desperation worked well for the Gators in the first half as Mornhinweg served as a decoy as much as a quarterback, often splitting out from behind center to a wide receiver position so Florida could snap the ball directly to a running back. Most often, that running back was Kelvin Taylor, who had a 20-yard touchdown run and then a 29-yard touchdown run in the first half to help Florida to a 14-6 halftime lead.
The Gators threw 14 passes versus 41 runs and finished with 307 yards, 142 of which came on their first two possessions. The Gamecocks only scoring in the first two quarters came Fry, who hit from 25 yards and 45 yards and missed from 38 yards in the first half. South Carolina pulled within one point in the third quarter when Shaw found Bruce Ellington for a 32-yard touchdown on fourth-and-three.
USC: FG Fry 25, 10:21.
Florida: Kel. Taylor 20 run (Hardin kick), 3:03.
USC: FG Fry 45, 14:04.
Florida: Kel. Taylor 29 run (Hardin kick), 10:51.
USC: Ellington 32 pass from Shaw (Fry kick), 10:23.
USC: FG Fry 22, 6:43.
USC: FG Fry 43, 2:16.
RUSHING: Florida, Kel. Taylor 21-96, M.Brown 11-51, Showers 2-31, Patton 3-11, Joyer 1-8, T.Burton 3-3. South Carolina, Carson 13-102, Davis 13-54, Ellington 1-5, Shaw 8-3.
PASSING: Florida, Mornhinweg 10-13-1-107, T.Burton 0-1-0-0. South Carolina, Shaw 14-28-0-213.
RECEIVING: Florida, Dunbar 3-25, Fulwood 2-6, M.Brown 1-28, T.Burton 1-24, Kel.Taylor 1-15, Ajagbe 1-5, Patton 1-4. South Carolina, Ellington 4-67, Byrd 4-55, Anderson 3-69, Roland 1-9, Jones 1-7, Davis 1-6.