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November 17, 2012

Fourth-quarter spurt lifts USC past Wofford

Winning the final home game of the season was probably a little tougher than South Carolina envisioned, but the Gamecocks can still proudly proclaim "mission accomplished" with the biggest game of the season looming next week.

With the SEC East title out of reach, Steve Spurrier and the USC players planted the school's first perfect home record (7-0) in 25 years firmly atop the list of updated goals heading into the final week of the regular season.

Behind a strong defensive effort, the Gamecocks succeeded in attaining the unblemished mark with a grinding and sometimes exasperating 24-7 victory over determined Wofford on Senior Day in front of 79,982 fans at Williams-Brice Stadium, giving Spurrier his 64th victory at USC, tying Rex Enright's career record.

Experiencing mixed results defending the triple option, USC improved to 9-2 and has won 20 of its last 24 games heading into the annual rivalry game at Clemson in a week (7 p.m., ESPN or ESPN2).

If USC beats Clemson for the fourth consecutive year, Spurrier will stand alone at the top of USC's all-time coaching wins list.

The Gamecocks won their 11th straight home game, and their 16th straight contest over Wofford, which concluded the regular season with an 8-3 record (seven wins vs. FCS teams) and now awaits word about a possible at-large berth into the FCS playoffs.

"This game was about like every time we've played Wofford," Spurrier said. "It was very close and then something good happened for us in the fourth quarter. Wofford is a good team, but we knew that coming in and we knew it was going to be a dogfight all the way through. We feel fortunate to come out on the winning side."

The Terriers shared the regular-season Southern Conference crown with Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, and the tiebreaker to determine the automatic bid depended on the outcome of several games today.

Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, named one of four finalists for the Lombardi Award, didn't play because of his lingering foot problems that have plagued him for the past several weeks.

Afterwards, Spurrier said that Clowney also had an issue with one of his knees.

The USC defense came up big when it had to in the first 10 minutes of the fourth quarter with a pair of fourth-down stops, one inside the red zone, and a fumble return for a touchdown.

The Gamecocks forced four fumbles, recovering three, from a Wofford offense that had lost just six fumbles in its first 10 games. USC won the important turnover battle by one (3-2).

"We got some turnovers that gave us a little breathing room at the end of the game," Spurrier said.

Despite USC being out-gained 330-293 on a frustrating afternoon for the Gamecock offense, the Gamecocks scored 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to pull away in the final eight minutes.

USC scored those 17 points in a span of 4:24 that started with a short field goal by Adam Yates with just under 12 minutes remaining.

Spurrier improved to 47-0 in his coaching career against teams from outside the BCS conferences.

Kenny Miles had 127 yards on a career-high 27 carries, including 74 yards in the first half, to spark the offense, while quarterback Connor Shaw overcame a sprained foot en route to completing 16-of-20 passes for 122 yards and one touchdown.

"I know they had pretty good coverage, but I couldn't get him to turn it loose," Spurrier said. "We hit a lot of short ones. We had Damiere Byrd running deep on one, but (Shaw) dropped the snap. It was a struggle, but give Wofford credit. Those guys can play defense. They're pretty good. They held us under 300 yards. We couldn't block them several times."

Miles' career-high rushing yardage for his first 100-yard rushing game since the 2009 Clemson game and Shaw's passing yards accounted for 85 percent of USC's total offensive output. Miles also registered four receptions for 27 yards.

Even though Shaw completed 80 percent of his passes, Spurrier expressed displeasure about averaging just 7.63 yards per completion.

"Our passing game was not very good," Spurrier said. "We hit a few comebacks late in the game. We hit only two balls down the field."

Miles out-gained Wofford's Eric Breitenstein by 2 yards on one fewer carry. Wofford rushed for 259 yards on 60 carries, 98 yards below its season average.

Wofford drove 68 yards in 15 plays on its first possession of the second half, but a fumble forced by free safety D.J. Swearinger was recovered by the Gamecocks at the USC 27-yard-line.

Miles touched the ball on USC's first four snaps of the ensuing possession with three rushes for 17 yards and one pass reception. Completions to Bruce Ellington moved the ball inside the 35-yard line before a well-executed wide-receiver screen to Ace Sanders gained 13 yards.

The fast-moving - and scoreless - third quarter ended with USC in scoring position at the Wofford 15.

However, the Gamecocks had to call two timeouts within a span of four plays before settling for a 23-yard field goal by Yates with 11:57 left in the contest.

Gashed for most of the previous two quarters, the USC defense came up with the biggest play of the game when it stuffed Breitenstein for no gain on a fourth-and-1 from the Wofford 34.

"I'm proud of the defense," Spurrier said. "They gave up a couple of drives, but other than that, we forced some turnovers and forced some fumbles. They certainly played well. It was a good win for us."

The much-needed turnover on downs led to Shaw's 8-yard screen pass to Sanders for a touchdown that increased USC's lead to 17-7 with 8:10 left in the contest.

Thirty-seven seconds later, Breitenstein was hammered on a run up the middle and was separated from the football. Akeem Auguste scooped up the loose ball and raced 31 yards for the touchdown, the first of his career coming seven days after intercepting his first career pass.

"It's a blessing. I haven't played a lot this year but I'm making the best of my time now," Auguste said. "It didn't hit me until I started going to the student section and realized this was the last student-section cheering for me."

Wofford completed a long pass on just its second attempt of the afternoon, but the USC defense denied the Terriers on four rushing attempts inside the 10-yard-line and the Gamecocks took over at the 5 with 4:17 left.

Only then could Gamecock Nation stop holding its breath.

Swearinger was active all day, spearheading USC's defensive effort with 12 tackles, one tackle for loss, one forced fumble (his first of the season) and one fumble recovery.

Swearinger, who played his final home game, had 25 tackles in the last two games to give him 65 tackles for the season.

"I had a decent last home game," Swearinger said. "Twelve tackles is a good game for me. I wanted to get a forced fumble today. I haven't had one all year, so I think I had a productive day and went out with a bang for my last home game."

Wofford's five second-half possessions ended with two fumbles and three failed fourth-down attempts, two inside the red zone in the final five minutes.

"Turnovers got us today," Wofford coach Mike Ayers said. "If we don't turn it over and take care of the ball, than the other side may be a little sad. But I loved the effort of the kids and the way they conducted themselves. We didn't come to collect a check, we came to get a win."

After the USC defense forced a three-and-out on Wofford's opening possession, Miles raced 16 yards through the middle. Later, a Wofford offside penalty on third down helped the Gamecocks pick up a first down.

But the promising drive ended when Shaw rolled right and under-threw a receiver who was open in the middle of the field. The pass was picked off, Shaw's seventh pick of the season.

Another three-and-out by the USC defense allowed USC to start its second possession at the USC 49. Disaster nearly struck early when Shaw fumbled, but the ball was recovered by A.J. Cann.

A well-executed pitch to Miles picked up 17 yards to the Wofford 18. When a double-pass play went awry, USC stuck to the ground game and Miles powered over from 2 yards out on the initial play of the second quarter to hand USC a 7-0 lead.

USC ran 21 plays to Wofford's six and out-gained the Terriers 83-15 in the first quarter. Sixty-one of those yards belonged to Miles on eight carries.

When Wofford went three-and-out on its third possession, the Terriers had 22 total yards in their first three drives.

With Miles again doing the early damage (7-yard catch; 16-yard run), the USC offense zipped down the field. However, moments after a review showed a pass to Nick Jones was indeed completed, Mike Davis rumbled 16 yards to the 5-yard line, but the Wofford defense ripped the ball out.

A defender scooped up the loose football and ran out of bounds at the Wofford 17. The Terriers finally picked up their initial first down of the afternoon on a gutsy fourth-and-1 play from the 26.

But, four plays later, a failed option pitch fell to the ground and the Gamecocks pounced on the loose football at the Wofford 43. But the USC offense failed to exploit the advantageous field position with a three-and-out.

The failure to mount any type of drive cost USC dearly.

By the latter stages of the second quarter, the triple option began to have some success with Breitenstein rumbling through the middle for 14 and 15 yards.

Breitenstein, who carried for 46 yards on Wofford's final seven plays, barreled over from 2 yards out with 32 seconds remaining in the second quarter to even the score at 7-7. The score capped an impressive 12-play, 85-yard drive for the Terriers.

Wofford had four rushes of 10 or more yards on the scoring drive.

Wofford dominated the second quarter, outgaining USC 118-73, and put together the one scoring drive in the final four minutes of the half.

Miles had 74 yards on 12 carries in the first half, while Shaw was 7-of-9 passing for 55 yards. Breitenstein, stymied for most of the first half, finished the opening 30 minutes with 68 yards on 15 attempts.

"Wofford dropped eight and rushed three just about every other play," Shaw said. "They dropped into a big zone. So I was forced to run on a couple of those. I don't know how much longer I could have stayed in the pocket. I tried to stay in the pocket as long as I could. But there's always stuff to improve on."

USC's four first-half possessions ended with an interception, touchdown, fumble and punt.

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