Mike Matulis, like South Carolina’s 2015 football season, has got a lot of scars, so there was plenty of symmetry when South Carolina’s senior offensive lineman hugged coach Shawn Elliott as the clock ran out Saturday night in Williams-Brice Stadium.
“He’s been through a lot, and we had a really good moment,” Elliott said.
These Gamecocks have been through a lot, too. They’ve had a home game and a coach pulled out from under them in the last two weeks; they lost their first four SEC games of the season, and they’re still looking at a steep uphill climb to a bowl game, but for one night at least they got a good moment with a 19-10 win over Vanderbilt.
It was South Carolina’s first game without Steve Spurrier at the helm since 2004. Spurrier resigned abruptly Monday, and Elliott was given the interim coaching job and five days to get his new team ready to play Vanderbilt.
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“This was one heck of a team win,” he said. “Monday night we had no clue what was happening to tell you the truth. It kind of hit us blindsided just like it did the rest of the country and our university and the state. They had their backs against the wall all week, and they never batted an eye. They kept fighting; they kept playing; they did everything we asked of them.”
Elliott compared his team to the residents of South Carolina bouncing back from the flooding that devastated so much of the city and forced the Oct. 10 game against LSU to be played in Baton Rouge, La., rather than Williams-Brice Stadium.
“You see people rebuilding, helping one another, fighting, clawing to get back what they had, people helping,” Elliott said. “That’s exactly how we did it today.”
At times, the Gamecocks (3-4, 1-4 SEC) looked like what they were — a team thrown together at the last minute. They trailed the Commodores (2-4, 0-3 SEC) 7-6 at halftime. They converted just 2 of 13 third down attempts. They turned the ball over twice and got only one touchdown on four trips into the red zone.
Thousands of the 75,159 fans in attendance left at halftime and in the second half, despite the fact that the outcome hung in the balance until Elliott Fry kicked a 22-yard field goal with 5:27 left in the game to put the Gamecocks up 19-10.
“It was a special night, and I hope our fans understand that because it wasn’t all pretty, but the bottom line is we came out and won that football game and that’s exactly what our football needed to do,” Elliott said.
There were some highlights along the way. Wide receiver Pharoh Cooper and running back Brandon Wilds each had season highs in yardage, 160 yards on seven catches for Cooper and 119 yards on 24 carries for Wilds. The defense forced a season-high five turnovers, and Elliott got two Gatorade baths after the clock hit 0:00.
“It’s the start of the second half of the season today,” said junior quarterback Perry Orth, who was 17-for-28 passing for 272 yards, one touchdown and one interception and got his first collegiate win as a starter. “We just tried to pretend like our record was 0-0, and we had to come out and get a victory.”
Orth never got used to jogging off the field and not seeing Spurrier the moment he got to the sideline, he said.
“It was different,” Orth said. “It’s tough seeing a coach like that go, but I respect his decision. We got a win today, and I know he’s happy for us.”
Elliott told his team to throw caution, and even good judgment at times, to the wind in its first game without Spurrier. He instructed his players to “cut loose” and told them he would forgive a few celebration penalties if it came to that.
“They had a lot on their minds, and I wanted them to go out there and have fun,” he said.
Matulis has played for Elliott, formerly the Gamecocks offensive line coach, since 2011 but missed the last two-and-a-half seasons thanks to two shoulder surgeries and one knee surgery. Matulis knew what Saturday meant to Elliott, a native South Carolinian by way of Camden.
Elliott led the Gamecocks onto the field before the game while holding a Spurrier signature — a white visor — over his head.
“I knew I wanted to do something to pay tribute to him and I just thought what better way than to bring out the visor,” Elliott said. “I just thought that was the best way to do it.
“I gave no thought to wearing it.”