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October 8, 2011

Group Therapy: USC dominates Kentucky



COLUMBIA, SC -- All those trials and tribulations plaguing the South Carolina offense disappeared for one afternoon.

After slumping for three weeks, the USC offense broke out Saturday in a big way, gaining 639 yards of total offense in a 54-3 shellacking of woeful Kentucky (2-4 overall, 0-3 in SEC) in front of 75,838 delirious fans on a sun-splashed day at Williams-Brice Stadium.

The 51-point margin of victory is the largest ever against a SEC opponent, and the biggest since USC walloped Kent State by 63 points (77-13) in October 1995.

Connor Shaw made Steve Spurrier's decision to anoint him the starting quarterback - benching fifth-year senior Stephen Garcia in the process - look like a brilliant move as the true sophomore from Flowery Branch, Ga., threw for 311 yards and four touchdowns on 26-of-39 passing as he continuously torched the supposedly stubborn Kentucky pass defense.

Well, at least they were until Saturday afternoon.

"Connor had a lot of good plays. There were a few plays we could have done better or maybe had a better play, but Connor played well and threw the ball well," USC head coach Steve Spurrier said. "It was a good game for us. A lot of guys got to play, which is important. It was a good win for us."

USC has now beaten Kentucky 11 times in the last 12 meetings, gaining a measure of revenge for last season's three-point loss at Lexington, Ky. in which USC blew an 18-point halftime lead.

Retribution? Totally.

The lopsided victory also erased the memory of last week's potentially deflating loss to Auburn, and should put the Gamecocks into a positive frame of mind entering a critical three-game road stretch.

Shaw became the first USC quarterback since 2006 to toss four touchdowns in a single game. He came in with one career TD pass in 44 pass attempts. He set multiple career highs (completions, passing attempts, passing yards, TD passes, longest TD pass) in the game. He also rushed 15 times for 42 yards.

But his best number on the day might be this one - zero interceptions.

"I felt like I prepared a lot this week," Shaw said. "The coaches told me to just be patient and be ready when your number is called. I had a week of preparation and it made me feel good coming into this game. We had a really good game plan as far as different formations and strategies."

USC improved to 5-1 overall, 3-1 in the SEC. The Gamecocks will head to Starkville for next Saturday's 12:20 p.m. clash with Mississippi State with no worse than a first place tie with Florida or Georgia or both.

Florida fell to LSU, 41-11, in Baton Rouge late Saturday afternoon, while Georgia is scheduled to kickoff against Tennessee in Knoxville at 7 p.m. ET.

Florida's second straight conference loss means USC will have the edge in the SEC East even if Georgia beats the Vols because the Gamecocks hold the tiebreaker advantage over the Bulldogs.

USC opened up a 20-3 lead at halftime and maintained the pressure and intensity deep into the second half by scoring a touchdown and two field goals in the third quarter.

Shaw hit Nick Jones on a 25-yard TD pass midway through the third quarter for a 27-3 lead before Wooten booted 48 and 42-yard field goals to make it 33-3 with 15 minutes remaining.

The Gamecocks added three touchdowns in the fourth quarter on a 61-yard run by Bruce Ellington out of the shotgun formation (took direct snap, turned the corner and raced up the right sideline), a 7-yard TD pass from Andrew Clifford to D.L. Moore (first career TD pass for Clifford) and an 8-yard run by Dylan Thompson (first career TD).

USC scored four touchdowns and two field goals in seven second half possessions. They had 347 yards of total offense over the final 30 minutes.

Alshon Jeffery had a season-high six receptions for 95 yards and two touchdowns. Ace Sanders and Justice Cunningham had five catches each as they benefited from USC's more wide-open attack.

"It was just time to some call some plays and see what happened," Spurrier said. "We felt confident we could execute these plays. We still missed a lot of them. It was time to put that little spread in and it helped us open things up."

USC secured 32 first downs to six for Kentucky, a single game high during Spurrier's seven-year tenure as head coach. The 54 points were the third-highest single game total since Spurrier became head coach in 2005.

But that's not all. The 288 rushing yards surpassed the previous single-game high under Spurrier by one yard, and represented the fourth time during his tenure USC has rushed for more than 250 yards in a single game.

Spurrier's next win will be his 50th as USC head coach. His career record with the Gamecocks improved to 49-33.

Overall, USC rushed the ball 48 times, while throwing 43 passes. The 639 yards were the most by USC since 2001 when they established a school record with 656 yards against Vanderbilt in a 43-14 win.

"We had a lot of rushes and a good balanced attack," Spurrier said. "We haven't done that much. It was a fun game."

This is the first time USC has scored 50-plus points against a SEC opponent in Spurrier's tenure. Kentucky's six first downs were the second-lowest by an opponent in the last seven years.

The result? USC dominated time of possession by holding the ball for 38:37. Kentucky had the ball for just 21:23.

And the domination didn't stop with the USC offense. The Gamecock defense limited Kentucky to 96 total yards, six first downs and forced a season-high six turnovers, including four interceptions.

D.J. Swearinger, Victor Hampton, Stephon Gilmore and C.C. Whitlock all had picks. USC now has 12 interceptions in six games this season, two more than they had all of last season.

"We got tired of being the downfall of the team," Whitlock said. "For the past two years, everybody was looking at us. We came together this summer and just decided we wouldn't be the downfall of the team anymore. We wanted to help the team as much as possible."

The secondary also registered six pass breakups, paralyzing UK's already weak passing game in the process.

After UK kicked a field goal on their opening possession following a short drive (they started from the USC 26 when Bruce Ellington fumbled the opening kickoff), Kentucky's final 15 possessions of the game ended on a negative note: nine punts, four interceptions and two fumbles.

Of those nine possessions in which UK punted, six were three-and-outs.

"The defense was outstanding," Spurrier said. "The defense kept getting it back and getting it back. Kentucky has a heckuva punter, I know that. We kept getting it back. That's why we had 91 plays."

Kentucky quarterbacks combined to complete 4-of-26 passes for 17 yards, including 1-of-19 in the final three quarters. UK was 2-of-13 on third downs compared to 9-of-18 for USC.

"Ugly is how you can describe it, especially offensively," Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips said. "We have an offense that can't make plays, can't stay on the field and turned it over six times. Several of those turnovers were on first down. The defense competed well at times, but gave up way too many big plays, which is hard to overcome."

How bad are the Wildcats? UK has been outscored, 137-20, and outgained, 1,507 yards to 550, in their three SEC games.

Marcus Lattimore started slowly on the ground, carrying just 10 times for 37 yards in the first half as USC focused on throwing the football. But the sophomore from Duncan, S.C., had 12 carries for 65 yards in the second half and finished with 102 yards on 22 carries.

He logged his eighth 100-yard rushing game of his career and his fourth of the season. For the first time this season, USC didn't have to rely extensively on Lattimore to generate offense. Instead, he could just operate within the flow of the offense.

"We've got so many weapons out here," Lattimore said. "I don't think it (today) was a change. We just decided we've got all this speed, we've got all this quickness out here and we've got to use it. We used it today and you see what the score was."

South Carolina fans waiting impatiently for the Gamecocks' offense to finally put everything together got a pleasant surprise in Shaw's second career start.

Shaw completed 15-of-22 passes for 207 yards and three touchdowns as USC shook off an early Kentucky field goal and stormed to a 20-3 halftime lead.

Shaw threw a pair of TD tosses to Jeffery (20 and 24 yards) and another to Cunningham (11 yards) in the first half, giving him four in his career.

By halftime, USC had thrown the ball 22 times and run it 21 times.

USC outgained Kentucky, 292-57, in the first half. Fifteen of those yards came on UK's opening possession, giving them 42 yards in the final 27 minutes.

Kentucky had nine passing yards in the first half. Quarterback Morgan Newton was 3-of-17 throwing and led the Wildcats in rushing with 35 yards.

Ellington's fumble on the opening kickoff was recovered by Kentucky at the 26. The Wildcats drove as far as the USC 8 before Antonio Allen crushed the UK ball carrier for a three-yard loss. The Wildcats settled for a 28-yard field goal with 11:58 left in the first quarter.

USC scored the final 54 points of the game.

USC's next possession looked like a typical Spurrier-called drive. The first four snaps were passes, including an incomplete pass to Damiere Byrd deep down the middle that almost connected.

But the drive ended on a positive note when Shaw first hit wide-open freshman tight end Rory Anderson on a crossing route for a 46-yard gain down to the UK 20.

Moments later, Shaw threw a perfect pass to Jeffery for a 20-yard touchdown in the right corner of the end zone.

Jeffery's 18th career touchdown gave USC a 7-3 lead with 9:16 left in the first.

USC's final two possessions of the first quarter ended with punts, though Spurrier continued to keep calling pass plays.

Gilmore preceded USC's third possession by intercepting Kentucky's flea-flicker pass. He was tackled at the Gamecock 6-yard line.

Spurrier's creativity peaked in the second quarter when he had Lattimore run the Wildcat along with several plays from a three-lineman formation.

Byrd started a seven-play, 55 yard TD drive with a 21-yard run. Lattimore carried four times for 14 yards until Shaw hit Cunningham over the middle from 11 yards out with 11:23 left in the second quarter.

Less than four minutes later, Shaw culminated a 5-play, 79-yard drive with his second TD pass of the afternoon to Jeffery. This one came from 24 yards out. The drive was aided by a personal foul penalty on the Wildcats.

UKY: 3-0-0-0 = 3
USC: 7-13-13-21 = 54

FINAL STATISTICS:
Total Yards - USC 639, UK 96;
Passing Yards - USC 351, UK 17;
Rushing Yards - USC 288, UK 79;
Individual Passing - USC, Connor Shaw 26-of-39, 311 yards; UK, Morgan Newton 4-of-20, 17 yards;
Individual Rushing - USC, Marcus Lattimore 22 rushes for 102 yards; UK Morgan Newton 14 rushes for 54 yards.

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D. McCallum


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