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January 1, 2013

Dramatic finish seals Outback Bowl win



TAMPA, Fla. - Four years ago, South Carolina had a miserable Outback Bowl experience against Iowa.

This year, the Gamecocks came up Aces and laughed like a Clowney.

Sparked by Ace Sanders' three touchdowns, a bone-rattling and jaw-dropping defensive play by Jadeveon Clowney and finally a dramatic 32-yard touchdown pass with 11 seconds remaining from Dylan Thompson to Bruce Ellington, the 11th-ranked Gamecocks pulled out an exciting 33-28 victory over No. 19 Michigan in front of 54,527 fans at sunny Raymond James Stadium in the Outback Bowl.

"It was a wonderful day for the Gamecocks, all of us," an elated Steve Spurrier said afterwards. "A lot of guys played super today. Ace Sanders was sensational. It was a good win for us. I don't think we've won one like that in the eight years I've seen here. So, that tells us we can do that."

Michigan scored a go-ahead touchdown with 3:29 remaining until Connor Shaw and Thompson combined to march USC 70 yards in 11 plays down the field, converting a fourth down along the way, for the winning points.

Michigan attempted a Hail Mary pass in the final seconds, but the ball was tipped by Devin Taylor as the Gamecock players celebrated with their helmets held aloft, and thousands of USC fans in the stands roared their approval.

Sanders matched the USC record of three touchdowns in a bowl game, established by Ryan Brewer in the dramatic 2001 Outback Bowl win over Ohio State, and was deservedly named Outback Bowl MVP.

"It's a real good feeling. I just want to thank God for the opportunity to showcase my talent," Sanders said. "I came out with something to prove. But I had to be patient."

The performance marked an afternoon of redemption for Sanders, who was largely ignored by the "Big Three" schools in the Sunshine State, including Florida State, the alma mater of his football-playing father.

"He was fired up about playing in his home area," said Spurrier, who won his first Outback Bowl. "People are probably wondering how we got him away from Florida and Florida State. They passed on him, saying he was too little. But he can play football, that's for sure. It was our good fortune that happened."

With the rousing win, USC matched the school record for most wins in a single season with 11, set last season when the Gamecocks beat Nebraska.

USC is 31-9 since the beginning of the 2010 season.

"I can't say enough about our seniors," Spurrier said. "They showed our young guys how to play football and how to hang in there and keep playing in the fourth quarter. We've taken pride in winning the fourth quarter. Most of our games this year came down to the fourth quarter."

Clowney, the winner of the Hendricks Award and the fourth consensus All-American for USC, made his presence felt late by forcing the fumble that set USC up to take a brief 27-22 lead.

Shaw was 18-of-26 for 224 yards and two touchdowns, while Thompson was outstanding in relief, connecting on 7-of-10 passes for 117 yards and two touchdowns, as the Gamecocks exploited a Michigan secondary weakened by injury and suspension.

Together, the two USC quarterbacks combined for 341 passing yards on 25-of-36 passing, and were both awarded game balls by Spurrier after the game.

USC gained 426 total yards on 53 plays, including 263 yards in the second half. Facing a defense ranked in the Top 20 nationally in all four major categories, Michigan had 355 yards.

Big plays lifted USC on offense and special teams all afternoon. Four of USC's five touchdowns were longer than 30 yards. The Gamecocks averaged 8.04 yards per play.

"It was game in which they probably played a little bit better overall, but we were able to score five touchdowns," Spurrier said.

Sanders, the Co-SEC Special Teams Player of the Year, had one of the electrifying plays of the game with a 63-yard punt return for a touchdown late in the first quarter. He also caught a 4-yard touchdown pass from Thompson and a terrific 31-yard pass reception from Shaw midway through the fourth quarter, moments after Clowney's vicious hit had jarred the ball loose from a Wolverine ball-carrier.

The potpourri of big plays by the Gamecocks continued early in the third quarter when Shaw faked a handoff and sprinted through the middle for a 64-yard gain to the U-M 11-yard-line. However, USC couldn't take advantage when Yates missed a 34-yard field goal attempt with 11:23 left in the third quarter.

Michigan drove as far as the USC 32 until Matt Wile slammed a 52-yard field goal through the uprights with 6:54 left in the third quarter to cut USC's edge to 21-16.

USC's trend of hitting big plays continued on its second possession of the second half, with a 37-yard pass to tight end Justice Cunningham. But the drive ended badly when, on fourth down, Shaw lost possession of the ball trying to scramble with the first-down marker in sight.

Michigan gambled on fourth-and-1 from its 44 on its ensuing possession and Gardner somehow squeezed through the line on a quarterback sneak for a 19-yard gain.

The do-or-die conversion led to a 10-yard touchdown pass from Gardner to acrobatic wide receiver Jeremy Gallon in the right corner of the end zone that gave the Wolverines a slim 22-21 lead with just two seconds remaining in the third quarter.

USC started the fourth quarter with the ball at its 17 and moved down the field largely on the right arm of Shaw, who completed several passes to move USC to the fringe of the red zone.

When Shaw was stacked up on a third-and-6 play, USC was forced to try a 43-yard field goal by Adam Yates, who missed an attempt in the first half.

This time, the ball never reached the goalposts as Yates' kick was batted down by Timberland High School graduate Quinton Washington along the line, preserving the one-point edge for the Wolverines.

Michigan made a high-stakes roll of the dice when it faked a punt on fourth-and-4 from its 37. The Wolverines' Floyd Simmons apparently made it by inches, keeping the drive alive, although the replay seemed to show the ball was a few inches short.

Spurrier vehemently argued that USC had stopped Michigan inches short of a first down, but the ruling was upheld upon review.

Seconds later, USC released the Clowney.

Held in check for most of the game, Clowney jumped between two Michigan offensive linemen and hammered running back Vincent Smith, forcing a fumble.

The big fella reached out and grabbed the ball as if it was a grapefruit, and gained 2 yards to the U-M 31 before being tackled.

"I'm glad the ref did that now," Spurrier smiled. "You never know what will happen with the next play. Jadeveon knocked it loose and we got it. He has that slip move where they get nothing but air when they go at it. He did it twice."

Spurrier immediately went for the jugular - as he typically does with a turnover on the opponents' side of the field - calling for a pass by Shaw into the end zone. Sanders made a sensational tumbling catch on a 31-yard touchdown play in the back middle of the end zone for his third touchdown of the game.

Because the two-point try failed, USC took a 27-22 lead into the final 8:06 of the fourth quarter.

Michigan promptly drove 64 yards in 10 plays for the go-ahead touchdown on a 17-yard touchdown connection from Gardner to Gallon, who burned the USC secondary all afternoon, on a short post pattern. Jimmy Legree was torched in one-on-one coverage.

USC took over at the 30 and soon faced a fourth-and-3 from the USC 37. Shaw fired a bullet to Sanders on a slant to pick up a first down.

Moments later, Shaw escaped the grasp of a Michigan defender and found Sanders over the middle for first down to the U-M 43.

When Shaw became hobbled by the same foot ailment that has bothered him for the last two months, Thompson entered the game and promptly hit a couple of passes, setting the stage for the offensive play of the year.

"Dylan was right there on call," Spurrier said. "We had no hesitation to fire them in there. Both those guys are super team-oriented. There are no jealousies. They are good teammates."

Bravely standing in the pocket in the face of a Michigan blitz, Thompson lofted a touchdown pass down the middle of the field to an open Bruce Ellington, who caught the ball inside the 5-yard line and stepped into the end zone for the game-winning points from 32 yards out.

The Wolverines, undoubtedly thinking that USC was angling for a late field-goal attempt, were stunned along with the blue and maize-clad fans in the stands.

Ellington had been quiet all day, with just one reception for 5 yards until that decisive, electric and well-timed final play of the season for the USC offense.

"That last play, they gambled and rushed five guys, but he (Thompson) took his steps and let it go," Spurrier said. "Bruce was there. He ran right into it."

USC jumped on the inexperienced Wolverines' secondary quickly when Shaw stepped back on the third offensive play of the game and lofted a 56-yard touchdown pass to Damiere Byrd streaking down the middle of the field.

Less than 90 seconds into the contest, USC had a 7-0 lead on Byrd's first scoring grab since the comeback win at Kentucky, and his first catch overall since LSU.

Moments later, Gardner threw a deep pass up for grabs on a third-and-15 play, and Legree ran under it for his third interception of the season.

Robinson touched the ball for the first time on Michigan's second possession when he carried for 15 yards. Thanks to an acrobatic grab by Gallon over Akeem Auguste, the Wolverines drove into the red zone before the USC defense stiffened.

The Wolverines settled for a 39-yard field goal by Brendan Gibbons with 7:28 left in the first quarter, cutting USC's lead to 7-3.

After USC punted on the next two possessions following Byrd's touchdown, the Gamecocks came up Aces.

Sanders, who has established himself as one of the nation's top punt returners this season, caught a Wolverines punt at the USC 37 and rocketed through a seam that opened in the middle of the field.

All the lightning-fast Sanders had to do after that was out-race Michigan backup punter Wile down the left sideline en route to the end zone for his electrifying second punt return for a TD this season, and the third of his career.

"Once I saw Bruce Ellington and Brison Williams hold up the gunners, there was nobody downfield," Sanders said.

Michigan responded with an 11-play, 75-yard scoring drive engineered by Gardner, who side-stepped a couple of Gamecock defenders before flipping a 5-yard touchdown pass to Drew Dileo to cut USC's advantage to 14-10 with 12:41 left in the second quarter.

But it took Thompson exactly 107 seconds to get those seven points back. On the third snap, the redshirt sophomore from Boiling Springs lofted a pass down the seam to a wide-open Nick Jones, who raced all the way to the 4-yard-line for a 70-yard gain until being tackled by a couple of U-M defensive backs.

Thompson calmly sprinted right and threw a 4-yard scoring pass to Sanders into the right side of the end zone with 10:54 left in the second quarter to restore USC's 11-point lead (21-10).

Michigan knocked the ball from Miles' grasp midway through the second quarter and Jake Ryan fell on the fumble at the USC 31, putting the Wolverines into scoring position.

When Michigan looked like it would have to settle for three points, it suddenly shifted out of field-goal formation and ran a fake for 7 yards that produced a first down at the USC 20.

But the Gamecock defense rose again as Victor Hampton dropped Gardner on a corner blitz for a sack at the USC 23, forcing the Wolverines to settle for a 40-yard field goal by Gibbons with 2:47 left in the second quarter.

The three-pointer sliced USC's lead to 21-13.

Michigan had one final attempt in the closing seconds of the first half, but Gardner's Hail Mary pass sailed beyond the end zone.

Because of the quick-strike touchdown pass to Byrd, Sanders' 63-yard punt return, the 70-yard pass to Jones and the fumble by Miles, USC ran just 21 offensive plays for 163 yards in the first half. Most of those yards (155) came through the air.

Miles (minus-5 yards) was the lone running back to have a carry in the first half. Shaw was 6-of-7 passing for 80 yards, while Thompson was 4-of-5 for 75 yards, making them a combined 10-of-12 passing.

Michigan totaled 182 yards in the first half, including 130 on the ground. Robinson had 48 yards rushing on 10 carries, while Gardner was 11-of-22 passing for 130 yards and one touchdown.

"You can't give up big plays and we had three or four in the whole game that you can't allow to happen," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "We gave up a punt return for a touchdown. Those things hurt your football team. Give them a lot of credit. But we had a lot of opportunities."

Box score

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