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November 17, 2012

Opposing view: So close ...



It was the 15th play of the drive, and Wofford had only just crossed midfield.

Everything was going to plan - hell, things were going better than Wofford coach Mike Ayers and his staff had hoped. In meetings earlier in the week, Ayers and his coaches brainstormed different "what if" scenarios - 'What if South Carolina moves it on us early? What if we can't move it against them? What if we have to quick-kick just to stay alive?'

So far, with time running out in the third quarter of a tie game on the road against No. 12 USC, his best-case scenario was unfolding: 'What if they make key turnovers in the red zone? What if they can't stop us?'

For the announced crowd of 79,982 watching Wofford work the option to perfection, the cold was a little colder, the aluminum seats a little harder and the wind a little stronger as run after run kept moving the Terriers' chains. The drive before, Wofford had tied the game on a methodical 12-play, 85-yard drive that featured only one third-down conversion.

Meanwhile, on the Gamecocks' sideline, a gimpy Connor Shaw was leading a gimpy USC offense quickly on and off the field - when it could hang on to the ball, that is. Two big red-zone turnovers in the first half had kept Wofford in the game to this point, had carried it through halftime, and had given it the confidence that not only could it win this game, it just might actually be doing it right this very second.

The drive had begun on the Wofford 5-yard-line. Senior fullback Eric Breitenstein carried three plays in a row for 4, 7 and 3 yards, then junior halfback Donovan Johnson rushed for 3 yards. Redshirt freshman halfback Octavious Harden then gained 3 yards to set up a fourth-and-1, and Breitenstein - more lumberjack than rusher - muscled his way for 3 yards up the middle and a first down at the Terriers' 28.

An offside from Kelcy Quarles turned that into a first-and-5 at the 33, and the Terriers had another first down three plays later on a 9-yard run by third-string quarterback James Lawson - Wofford starter Brian Kass and backup Michael Weimer had earlier left the game with injuries and would not return. From there, it was Breitenstein for 2 more, Harden for another 7, Lawson for 2, senior halfback Brad Nocek for 6 more and Breitenstein again rumbling17 yards down the middle of the field and dragging tacklers to the 27 for another first-and-10.

From the sidelines, Steve Spurrier could only lean back and grimace, look at the clock and shake his head.

Then it happened. On the 15th play, Lawson took the handoff and handed off to Harden, who cut upfield, made a move on a defender and ran smack into the anvil that is the feared lowered shoulder of reigning Walter Camp National Player of the Week D.J. Swearinger.

Goodbye, ball. Goodbye, drive.

Seventeen rapid points later, goodbye, dream.

"The turnovers got us today," Ayers said after the game. "If we don't turn over the football today and had been taking care of the ball really well, then that other side might be a little sad.

"I told them at the beginning of the week, we're not coming down there for a check, we're coming down there for a win. It's a tough one when you know you're close and that you almost beat Goliath. It just didn't turn out. I'm sure that there were a bunch of people up there in the other-colored jerseys that were kind of worried."

Indeed they were. Especially when USC's offense couldn't get out of first gear until the fourth quarter. While Shaw's numbers had been effective through three quarters - 13-of-16 for 96 yards - the throws were short or to the sidelines, with nothing testing the Terriers downfield. The reason, Ayers said, was simple.

"I think what happens is you take your shot at throwing the ball early and all of a sudden it's a negative play because you give up a sack," he said. "The next thing you know, they're saying, 'We're bigger than they are, let's run the ball at them.' That kind of thing."

Another reason for the lack of downfield passing success was the shifting looks by the Terriers that gave USC's offensive staff fits.

"We were checking our defense from the boundary," Ayers said. "Several times on that one drive, they had to call timeout because they knew that we had checked and they were in the wrong thing. It was a great job on our defensive staff's part getting them ready."

In the end, it was too little against a team with more talent.

"They have a good team," Ayers said. "They've got some serious athletes.

"But I think our kids showed well. They showed well."

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