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October 9, 2010

Who's Afraid Of The Big Bad Elephant?

COLUMBIA -- Was this the biggest victory of the Steve Spurrier Era? Heck, it only was the biggest win in school history.

Who's afraid of the Big, Bad Elephant? Certainly not that team wearing garnet and black in Columbia.

Delighting a sell-out crowd of almost 83,000 fans and stunning a CBS national TV audience, No. 19 South Carolina shocked No. 1-ranked Alabama, 35-21, Saturday afternoon to snap the Tide's 19-game winning streak and deal the visitors from Tuscaloosa their first regular season loss since Nov. 24, 2007.

The victory completed a rare hat trick by USC athletics in the 2010 calendar year. The men's basketball team knocked off No. 1 Kentucky, 68-62, in January. In June, the USC baseball team eliminated top-ranked Arizona State from the College World Series en route to capturing the national championship.

"I think this game was meant to be," an elated USC head coach Steve Spurrier said. "Our guys played their hearts out. We had a lot of outstanding individual plays. We held on and got a few breaks here and there."

The victory elevated Spurrier to sole possession of second place on the all-time SEC wins list with his 107th win against conference foes. The fact the historic win came against Alabama is ironic since only the legendary Bear Bryant has more conference wins in the 76-year history of the SEC. What did Spurrier do as a reward? He awarded himself a game ball.

The two-touchdown win over the unanimous No. 1 team in the country improved USC to 12-1 in their last 13 home games.

USC played exceptionally well on both sides of the ball, starting with quarterback Stephen Garcia, who posted the finest numbers of his career by completing 17-of-20 passes for 201 yards and three touchdowns.

"Stephen Garcia played the best game he's ever played," Spurrier said. "Without a doubt, that was the best our offense has played ever since I've been here. We scored five touchdowns out of about eight (actually nine) real possessions.

But the euphoria extended to freshman running back Marcus Lattimore, who gained 93 yards and outrushed Alabama's heavily publicized duo of Mark Ingram (41 yards) and Trent Richardson (23 yards) by 29 yards.

"I'm still dreaming it right now," Lattimore said. "I don't think that it has really sunk in yet. But it is a big win for us. We had to work hard. All we had to do was complete our assignments. Fate definitely kicked in."

Sophomore WR Alshon Jeffery had seven receptions for 127 yards, including a sensational one-handed catch in a key situation, and staked a claim towards being the No. 1 wide receiver in the nation.

"That is a guy you have to keep throwing at," Spurrier said. "Alshon is a tremendous player and it's always good to see guys like Alshon and Stephon Gilmore have success. Those guys could have gone anywhere in the country and they chose to come here and play for their home state university."

The 35 points scored by USC were the most against Alabama since LSU scored 41 in a win over the Tide on Nov. 3, 2007. USC was also 4-for-4 with four touchdowns in the red zone against the SEC's top team as far as defending the area inside the 20-yard line.

USC improved to 4-1 overall, 2-1 in the SEC. They travel to Kentucky next Saturday for a SEC East battle against the Wildcats, which hosted Auburn Saturday night at Commonwealth Stadium.

"We will take it and try to move on to the next one," Spurrier said. "Hopefully, we can get ready for Kentucky next week and Vanderbilt and Tennessee all down the line. We will try to improve on this."

As productive as the offense was this afternoon, the story of the game might have been the USC defense, particularly the defense line. All week, the Gamecock defense heard about how prolific the Alabama offense was, but refused to buy into the hype by shutting down the Alabama running game (36 yards) and sacking Tide QB Greg McElroy seven times.

McElroy lost for the first time as a starting quarterback since the eighth grade.

"You have to give a lot of credit to South Carolina," Alabama head coach Nick Saban said. "They played a great game today. They were physical, aggressive and had a good plan. We got outcoached today. We have a lot of work to do as a team."

In addition to being the first win in school history over a top-ranked team, the convincing win assures USC should rocket up the polls when they're released early Sunday afternoon.

Meanwhile, the loss by Alabama could produce chaos at the top of the polls where several teams could a make legitimate to No. 1. Question is, does anybody want the top spot?

Previously, USC's biggest win in school history with regards to the polls was a 1981 win over No. 3 North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

Alabama was the second No. 1-ranked team to visit Williams-Brice Stadium within the last 11 months. Florida came to Columbia on Nov. 14, 2009, and escaped with a 24-14 victory.

With three games against SEC East opponents over the next three weeks, the victory could propel the Gamecocks to the SEC East title.

"It couldn't have come at a better time," Garcia said. "The crowd was really into it. We responded unbelievably well to the questions that were asked about us from everyone. It's an unbelievable feeling. I'm not really sure how to describe the feeling right now."

The second half started badly for USC as Chris Culliver first bobbled the punt and then Garcia let the shotgun snap from the USC 19 sail through his hands. He picked up the ball and inexplicably tossed it beyond the end zone for a safety.

"I should've caught the snap, but it was a little hard and high," Garcia said. "T.J. (Johnson) played a great game and I should've had it."

Alabama took the ensuing free kick and drove as far as the USC 22 before settling for a 39-yard field goal by Jeremy Shelley with 9:37 left in the third quarter, cutting USC's lead to 21-14.

USC converted a key third down situation when Jeffery made a great catch in traffic. Moments later, the sophomore from Calhoun County did it again with a catch out to the USC42 that gave the Gamecocks a first down by a foot.

USC soon crossed midfield, benefitting from an offsides penalty on the Tide, converted their third third-down situation of the drive on a 10-yard slant pass to Gurley down to the 30.

Brian Maddox then powered forward for a nice gain.

After a brief absence, Lattimore returned to power his way to the 2-yard line on a sprint draw. Two snaps later, on the 15th play of the drive, the freshman took an option push from Garcia and skipped into the end zone to give USC a 28-14 lead with 1:42 left in the third quarter.

The impressive drive covered 82 yards.

McElroy scrambled around to buy himself enough time to complete a 32-yard pass to Williams on the second snap of Alabama's next possession.

But a sack of McElroy set up a second-and-14 from the USC 48 when the third quarter ended.

Trailing by two touchdowns, Alabama finally got the big play they were looking for when McElroy hit Darius Hanks for a long TD play down the middle of the field.

Things got bizarre moments later when Jeffery couldn't hang onto a pass and a UA defender dove in before the ball hit the ground for USC's first turnover of the game.

But the defense sacked McElroy on third down, forcing Alabama to go into field formation from 42 yards out with just under 12 minutes left. The Tide executed a fake, but the Tide receiver dropped the pass, giving USC the ball at the 25.

Garcia fired a pass over the middle to Jeffery for a 15-yard gain out to the 32. But when a third-down run fell inches short of a first down, Spurrier had a huge decision to make. He called a timeout with 10:16 left to think it over.

USC sent four players out wide right to spread out the Alabama defense and Garcia pushed forward for the first down.

After that USC gave the ball to Lattimore and he picked up a first down. Garcia then lofted a fade pass down the right sideline to Jeffery, who was well covered by a Tide defensive back.

But Jeffery was undeterred and made a sensational one-handed catch. He slipped the Bama defender and raced down inside the 5-yard line before he was finally pushed out of bounds.

Three plays later, Lattimore powered over from two yards out for his second TD of the afternoon to restore USC's two-touchdown lead at 35-21 with 7:01 left.

The USC defense came onto the field looking for a big play and they got it when Melvin Ingram sacked USC at the UA 30. UA elected to punt and Gilmore returned it 16 yards to the USC 37.

USC took over with 5:15 left and picked up a key first down when Lattimore plowed forward for two yards with about 4:45 left.

Garcia was flawless in the opening 30 minutes, completing 9-of-9 passes and throwing three touchdown passes, two to Jeffery and one to Lattimore, to propel the Gamecocks to the 12--point advantage at intermission.

USC freshman running back Marcus Lattimore looked to rebound after a frustrating outing at Auburn and he looked strong in the first half with 47 yards on nine carries. He's hoping to become the first 100-yard rusher against Alabama in 40 games.

Coming in, USC knew it had to win the turnover battle and in the first half they did, forcing one miscue from Alabama without committing a turnover of their own.

USC also came into the game with the top red zone offense in the SEC and they did nothing to lose their lofty position, converting both opportunities inside the Alabama 20-yard line. They now have 15 TD in 18 red zone chances this season.

After taking the opening kickoff, Alabama quickly moved into USC territory on a wide receiver screen pass that gained 21 yards. However, when Alabama drove into the red zone the USC defense stiffened.

The Gamecocks tackled a Tide receiver about a yard short of a first down on third-and-3 from the USC 17, forcing Alabama to settle for a 32-yard field goal by Jeremy Shelley with 10:32 left in the first quarter.

USC passed their first third-down test when Garcia hit Sanders for an 11-yard gain to give the Gamecocks a first down at midfield.

The next snap, Lattimore found plenty of running room to the right and only a shoestring tackle brought him down after a 21-yard pickup to the UA 28. Moments later, Garcia threw a laser beam to Gurley, who caught the pass along the right sideline for a 17-yard gain right before he stepped out of bounds.

On second down, Garcia found Lattimore, the safety valve, alone over the middle and all the Byrnes High had to do is catch the football and head into the end zone for a 7-3 USC lead with 7:20 left in the first quarter.

It was the first career receiving touchdown for Lattimore.

USC's stopped UA's ensuing possession around midfield and, thanks to an aggressive march, forced the Tide punter to shank his boot. The ball bounced out of bounds at the USC 33.

A keeper by Garcia and a catch-and-run by Lattimore helped move the ball into Alabama territory, where the Gamecocks soon faced a fourth-and-2 from the UA 32. Spurrier decided to gamble.

Garcia kept the ball and it initially looked like he was stacked up with nowhere to go, but he bounced outside for a first down to the UA 26.

Garcia then lofted a perfect pass to Alshon, who was racing towards the left corner of the end zone. He reached up at about the 2-yard line and snatched the ball out of the air as the UA defenders looked on in disbelief. He took a step into the end zone for his third TD of the season.

The extra point gave USC a 14-3 lead with 35 seconds left in the first quarter. UA had given up just three TDs all season.

On UA's second snap of their next possession, Antonio Allen fought through a Tide blocker and stripped McElroy of the ball just as he was about to throw a pass. Travian Robertson recovered at the UA 43.

After a pass completion to Sanders and a personal foul (roughing the passer) penalty on the Tide moved the ball to the UA 26, Lattimore bulldogged his way for 11 yards to the UA 15. Garcia then lofted another perfect pass to Jeffery, who beat his defender by a step and caught the ball in stride five yards deep into the end zone for his second TD catch in a span of 1:43.

Unbelievably, USC led, 21-3, over the top-ranked Tide with just 38 seconds remaining left in the second quarter.

Desperate for points, Alabama put together a 15-play drive as for as the USC 10 before the defense came up with a couple of big plays and forced the Tide to attempt a 31-yard field goal.

The crowd roared when Shelley pulled the kick to the right, forcing a frustrated Alabama team to walk back to the sidelines without anything to show for the lengthy drive.

USC took over at its 20 with 4:35 left in the second quarter but was forced to punt with just over two minutes left in the second quarter.

Alabama went to Julio Jones immediately and his reception, together with a catch by Preston Dial, moved the ball into the red zone.

After the Tide converted one third down, they faced a third-and-8 situation from the USC 8 with 44 seconds left in the first half. McElroy calmly stepped back and rifled a pass to Julio Jones in the back middle of the end zone with 38 seconds left.

But Shelley pulled the extra point wide right, potentially short-circuiting any momentum Alabama might have received from the score.

One of the key questions heading into the game was whether USC's offensive line would hold up against Alabama's outstanding defensive line.

In the first half, Garcia wasn't sacked once and seemed to have enough time to take his steps and throw the football.

USC led the SEC in time of possession heading into Saturday's game. But in the first half, the Gamecocks controlled the ball for 10:36 compared to 19:24 for the Tide.

SCORING SUMMARY:
1Q - UA, Shelley 32-yard field goal, 10:32 (0-3)
1Q - USC, Garcia 9 yd pass to Lattimore (Xpt Good), 7:20 (7-3)
1Q - USC, Garcia 26-yard pass to Jeffery (Xpt Good), 00:35 (14-3)
2Q - USC, Garcia 15-yard pass to Jeffery (Xpt Good), 13:52 (21-3)
2Q - UA, McElroy 8-yard pass to Jones, 00:38 (Xpt failed)(21-9).
3Q - UA, Safety (Team), 14:49 (21-11)
3Q - UA, Shelley 39-yard field goal, 9:37 (21-14)
3Q - USC, Lattimore 1-yard run (Xpt Good), 1:42 (USC 28-14)
4Q - UA, McElroy 51-yard pass to Hanks, 14:51 (28-21)
4Q - USC, Lattimore 2-yard run (Xpt Good), 7:01 (35-21).


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