What Muschamp said about facing Alabama, former boss Nick Saban
True, the team treated every game the same, as most programs do. Lou Holtz’s teams were no different. But there was something that separated that game, whether is was in 2001, 2010 or this coming Saturday.
“We don’t play them every year,” said Trafford, a former USC tight end. “We don’t play them every other year. I mean, there could be multiple years that go, how the schedule tips for the SEC West. So you know, anytime you get a chance to play Alabama, and that coveted program, it’s special.”
When the subject of South Carolina and Alabama comes up these days, the first thing to mind is almost universally the 2010 classic in which Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks snapped a national champion’s winning streak and launched the program’s brightest era. And to a degree, that overshadows another classic, a 2001 meeting with a little history to it, and an incredible game to boot.
Erik Kimrey was a teammate of Trafford on that 2001 squad. He wasn’t all that precious about his playing days, with a direct feeling about how that 2010 game has overshadowed the previous meeting.
“Of course it should,” Kimrey said. “They were the No. 1 team in the country.
The 2001 game “was a big win for us because we had never beaten Alabama before. But Alabama was not the Alabama you know.”
Still, as the first meeting between the teams in nearly a decade draws close, it’s worth remembering a somewhat forgotten classic.
Heading into 2001, the Gamecocks and Crimson Tide had met 10 times.
USC had only once come closer than 10 points, and the previous season’s game in retrospect seemed a little odd.
The 2000 contest was only the third meeting since the Gamecocks had joined the SEC. Kimrey was set for his only career start at quarterback, one week after topping Mississippi State on “The Fade.” South Carolina was 4-0 and ranked, Alabama was scuffling off losses to Arkansas and Southern Miss.
And then it all went wrong.
“I played the first half, and then (Phil) Petty came in, and we lost that game,” Kimrey said. “That was our first loss of the season. So we knew that they had a good team.
“They were a storied program, but nothing like you would perceive them today.”
The Tide was a few years removed from the Gene Stallings era. Mike DuBose’s tenure had started out rocky, peaked at 10-3 in 1999, and was about to get rockier still.
That afternoon in Tuscaloosa, South Carolina turned the ball over four times. Petty came in on a bad ankle, threw a pair of quick scores but also tossed a pair of interceptions. USC cut into deficits multiple times, trailing by three halfway through the fourth quarter, but fell 27-17.
From that point forward, Alabama went 1-5, ending DuBose’s time there. South Carolina won three in a row, hit a skid against Tennessee, Florida and Clemson, and then topped Ohio State in the bowl to tie the second-most wins in program history to that point.
So South Carolina’s record in the series fell to 0-10, with an 8-4 team unable to hold off a 3-8 outfit. Players from that team said revenge wasn’t exactly on their minds in 2001, but it set the stage for a classic football game.
“We certainly had that taste in our mouth,” Petty said. “We had them back at home and we’d never beaten them. So we were looking forward to the opportunity to get it done.”
The game itself
Lou Holtz’s Gamecocks entered Sept. 29, 2001, already with a sense of high drama.
In Week 2, they’d handed Georgia a loss in the final seconds, the Brian Scott game. Two weeks later, USC edged Mississippi State by two points in the first college football game after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Running back Ryan Brewer says he doesn’t remember too many details from that game against the Tide, but he remembered the raw feeling in the stadium.
“This is one of those games,” Brewer said. “Just the electricity and the atmosphere, everything, it just seems different. It’s just a little bit extra. The crowd brings just that little, especially in Williams-Brice, brings a little bit extra juice.”
In 2001, it was one of the old Jefferson Pilot games on TV. Trafford remembers Dennis Franchione saying it was supposed to be a defensive kind of game. South Carolina had been in the top 10 in the country in points allowed the year prior, and both squads went on the field with top-20 scoring defenses. The teams came in allowing 10.6 points per game combined.
But the hosts needed their offense in gear as Alabama came out and scored on five of its first seven drives, pulling out to a 23-10 halftime lead.
South Carolina managed a short field goal after a turnover, and got a bomb from Petty to Scott, but the Tide had employed a little something special on offense.
“I remember them employing a lot of option,” Kimrey said, “which was a surprise to us. They had not shown it whole lot. And their quarterback wasn’t really known to be an option guy, although he was a good athlete.”
Alabama’s Tyler Watts had not topped 69 rushing yards in nine career games. He ended up carrying the ball 22 times for 162 yards and a pair of scores.
After halftime, South Carolina got a passing touchdown from Petty to Brewer and a rushing score from Andrew Pinnock. Petty recalled a few tweaks and adjustments on both sides of the ball to get things stabilized.
But each time, Franchione’s team responded with touchdowns of their own.
“One of those games where it was back and forth, back and forth,” Petty said. “It was literally ... like a heavyweight fight, but that’s what it felt like.”
The last of those came with 9:13 left in the fourth quarter. Watts took an option keeper to the left, found a massive hole and walked in untouched for the 9-yard score.
South Carolina trailed 36-24 with less than 9 minutes left.
“People were leaving,” Kimrey said. “I think they thought the game was over.”
But Holtz’s squad had a little magic left.
The dramatic finish
Petty knew at that moment, South Carolina football, the team around him, had overcome worse.
This is the program that lost one coach after a 1-10 season and opened the next coaching tenure with 0-11.
“After the turnaround we had after the 1999 season, and the 2000 season ... you know, we felt like we could play with anybody,” Petty said. “I think just having that sense of calmness, you know, and confidence.”
A reverse on the kickoff got things started with good field position. Petty came out in an empty backfield, and methodically took his team downfield.
The 65 yards were chewed up across six plays. A 26-yard toss to Derek Watson got the Gamecocks to the goal line, and Watson finished the drive by powering through for the score.
At different points, Holtz’s teams were known for power football and for throwing it around a little. Late that afternoon, the aerial attack took center stage.
“Skip (Holtz) definitely opened it up,” Kimrey said. “I think I remember Lou saying something to him like, ‘Open it up, Skip. Do whatever you need to do.’”
Petty recalled: “He allowed us to open it up and really put the game in our hands, you know, for me at quarterback, and then obviously the playmakers around me. I was excited.”
Petty’s 291 yards were the second-most of his career, behind only the “Fade” game and the three touchdowns were the most he’d ever have. This was not the day to run the ball through a brick wall. Instead he felt relief the the staff was letting him do what he had to.
After Watson’s plunge, Alabama got the ball on its 21 with 6:16 left, and it was time for South Carolina’s defense to go to work. On a day when USC gave up the second most points it would all season, it had already managed three stands inside its 10 to force field goals.
Now the team needed a stop and needed it quickly.
“I was a big proponent of watching the guys when I was on the sideline,” Brewer said. “Watching my teammates play on defense because they motivated me to play harder watching how hard they were going out there.”
After a short first-down run, Antoine Nesmith delivered a vital play. Watts pitched it on the option, and Nesmith shot upfield, blowing past a block and sticking running back Ahmaad Galloway.
The Gamecocks smothered a third-down draw, and the offense had its chance.
“They’ve got our backs,” Brewer said. “Now it’s our turn. We’ve got to turn around and have theirs.”
A nifty Brewer return set USC up on its 43. Petty got 9 yards on a draw and four more on an option keeper. By the time Petty got his chance to throw, he was reaching back to hit Andrea Gause for a 37-yard strike down to the Alabama 7.
And here is where Trafford steps into his role.
The big kid from New Jersey came to Columbia as a quarterback. He was always an uneven fit in a Lou Holtz attack, an athletic player with pass-catching skills at a spot where blocking was the main requirement. He went on to finish his career with two more catches (six) than years in the NFL (four).
With under 2 1/2 minutes left and 7 yards to go, the Gamecocks came out in their T-formation: three backs in a line and two tight ends. It only makes sense a power-football coach would want to burn a little time before getting that go-ahead score.
“That T-formation is one that we used a good bit in running situations,” Kimrey said. “We were shown that before, maybe that formation, but yeah, I’m not sure we had play-action passed out of it before.”
They’d been practicing throwing from it, all through the week, in fact.
“We were hitting Watson in the flat all week,” Trafford said. “But for some reason, I knew ... I remember going into the game, the play was called and I’m like, I thought to myself, like I’m gonna get this ball.”
Petty faked a pair of handoffs. He gave a little hop as he looked past Watson and found Trafford reaching out to get both hands on the ball and pull it in.
Trafford’s only catch of the season put USC up for the first time all day. Years later, his memory of it is crystal clear.
“It was like yesterday,” Trafford said. “I can visualize like running the route, seeing the ball, it’s pretty crazy.”
Coordinator Charlie Strong’s defense hardly gave up a yard, and Watts’ final pass bounced off the dirt to seal things. The goalposts came down, the third time in three years. A program not far removed from 21 losses in a row now had a coach asking fans to please stop pulling down the uprights after big wins.
“It was a lot of fun to watch,” Kimrey said. “And we had a lot of fun after it.”
The 2010 factor
This year, as the Gamecocks head toward their 16th all-time meeting with the Crimson Tide, the retrospectives are mostly focused on the 2010 game.
The 2001 team went on to finish 9-3, the program’s second-most wins in a year to that point. It was a high-water mark of the Lou Holtz era, with three near-.500 seasons to follow.
The 2010 team ended up with the school’s first trip to the SEC title game. Three 11-win seasons followed, the peak of the program’s success.
As members of that 2001 team looked back, they didn’t mind the 2010 ‘Bama game overshadowing their own and have a good sense of humor about it.
“The older we get, the less they’re going to talk about our games,” Brewer said. “That’s for sure.”
Brewer was in the building for the 2010 game, and he marveled at the energy and atmosphere that afternoon.
Kimrey said that 2001 Alabama game might have been overshadowed to a degree by others in that two-year run. USC had upset No. 9 Georgia in 2000, a game that ended with goalposts torn down, cut to pieces and taken to Five Points, and took a pair of Outback Bowls from Ohio State. Petty said at the time, the 2001 game still ranked up there as one of the biggest wins ever in Williams-Brice. In some sense, it built a foundation for what was to come with Spurrier.
Both Trafford and Brewer said they hope the 2001 game is overshadowed more and more because it means wins against the likes of Alabama and teams of the caliber become more commonplace. Trafford vividly remembers the 2010 game and the camaraderie he felt seeing one of the best games he’s ever watched.
“We’re all part of this same family,” Trafford said. “We’re all brothers. So you kind of share that happiness and success with those teams, because you know, they’re repping you and they’re repping the school and the former players.”
But as memories of an 18-year-old game fade more and more from the public consciousness, he and his teammates still savor some of those moments, the history they built as it becomes more of history each day.
“It’s still the first,” Trafford said. “And no one can ever take that away from that team.”