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August 30, 2013

Lightning strikes: USC prevails over Heels

Two sudden lightning strikes by the Gamecocks' offense proved decisive in the Clash of Carolinas.

Thankfully for Gamecock fans, those big plays came before a mass exit caused when Mother Nature decided to wreak havoc too close to the stadium.

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After unsafe weather conditions forced a one hour, 44 minute delay midway through the fourth quarter, USC closed out an impressive season-opening 27-10 victory over North Carolina Thursday night at Williams-Brice Stadium in front of a sellout crowd and a national TV audience on ESPN.

A 65-yard touchdown reception by Shaq Roland on the third snap of the game and a 75-yard scoring run by Mike Davis on USC's first play of the third quarter decorated South Carolina's offensive performance in the first 52 minutes of the game until lightning strikes forced the contest to be stopped.

USC outgained UNC, 406-293, averaging 6.88 yards per play, including 228 yards on the ground, 115 by Davis and 64 by Brandon Wilds on 12 carries apiece.

"We did some good running and obviously we hit some big plays in the game," Spurrier said afterwards. "We had some good plays, but a lot of bad plays. We only had 59 plays. We're happy to beat them. Who knows how good of a team they or us will be. It was a good first game. We weren't very good at all on third down conversions (5-of-14), but we managed to score enough touchdowns to beat them."

Davis, a sophomore from Lithonia, Ga., registered the first 100-yard rushing game of his career.

USC, which also scored on a 26-yard touchdown grab by Kane Whitehurst late in the first quarter and a pair of field goals by promising freshman placekicker Elliott Fry, continued an unprecedented run of success on Thursday nights.

USC is a perfect 7-0 under Spurrier when opening the season on Thursday nights.

Connor Shaw was 11-of-20 passing for 149 yards and one touchdown, and improved his record as a starting quarterback to 18-3 overall, 11-0 at Williams-Brice Stadium.

"Connor did OK, I think," Spurrier said. "He didn't have any picks. But he only threw 20 passes. He kept running and stopping and getting knocked backwards. That wasn't like him. He could dive in there for two or three yards. I talked with him about that a little bit."

Nick Jones led USC's receivers with four catches for 21 yards, while Roland caught had caught one more pass after the early touchdown.

UNC quarterback Bryn Renner was 26-of-43 passing for 194 yards directing the Tar Heels' hurry-up offense that showed flashes of effectiveness against USC's Jadeveon Clowney-led defense in the middle quarters, but was usually thwarted at key moments.

The Gamecock defense appeared tired at times during the course of the game as they strove to keep up with the rapid pace of UNC's hurry-up offense, which USC defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward described as the fastest he had ever seen.

"We'll try to work on our conditioning for the entire team, hopefully real soon," Spurrier said.

When the game resumed, UNC drove to the 1-yard line but were denied on fourth down. The Tar Heels ran 79 plays, but scored only 10 points and averaged a meager 3.7 yards per play.

The end of the game was spiced by a pair of timeouts called by each coach with five seconds remaining. Spurrier said USC wanted to throw a pass to freshman wide receiver Pharoh Cooper, but it didn't work out.

"We can win sort of ugly-looking games," Spurrier said. "We beat Vanderbilt last year in a pretty ugly-looking game. Hopefully, we can improve and get ready for Georgia."

The Gamecock defense limited UNC to 7-of-19 on third downs. T.J. Gurley, who replaced the injured Kadetrix Marcus (dislocated left shoulder), was USC's leading tackler with nine stops, while spur Sharrod Golightly had six tackles, one for loss, in his first career start at spur.

The victory on a hot and humid night extended USC's home winning streak to 12 games, third-longest in school history. The Gamecocks will seek to equal the second-longest home winning streak ever when they host Vanderbilt on Sept. 14 at 7 p.m.

Spurrier improved his record to 23-1 all-time in season-opening games as a head coach, while USC lengthened his regular season winning streak over non-conference opponents to 17 games.

With USC ahead, 20-7, UNC took the second half kickoff and drove inside the five-yard line - converting a crucial fourth-and-10 from the SC 30 along the way - until the USC defense stiffened and forced a 20-yard field goal, keeping the leading at two scores, 20-10, with 7:51 left in the third quarter.

UNC held the ball for 7:09 and ran 17 yards on the 67-yard drive.

USC's response? Davis took a handoff from Shaw, juked a Tar Heels tackler or two and raced around left end for a 75-yard touchdown, the longest scoring run and third rushing touchdown of the sophomore running back's career.

It was also the longest touchdown scamper by a Gamecock ball carrier in seven years.

The sudden score lifted USC into a 27-10 lead midway through the third quarter. USC stuck to running the football for the next 15 minutes of the contest until the contest was suspended, and continued to stay loyal to the run when the game resumed.

USC finished with 38 rushing attempts.

"We had a good little running game going," Spurrier said. "It could have been a lot closer. North Carolina hits some passes here and there, but our red zone defense kept them out (of the end zone) a couple of times."

UNC had a touchdown and field goal in three red zone chances.

"We played a really good football team tonight," UNC head coach Larry Fedora said. "They have some really good players and coaches and we didn't play the way we wanted to play. We knew it would be tough coming in here into their stadium and playing a game in this situation."

USC needed all of three plays to light up the scoreboard for the first time this season. After two nice carries by Davis accounted for 17 yards, Shaw dropped back and hit a streaking Roland with a perfect throw on a post route for a 65-yard touchdown pass.

The second career touchdown reception for Roland, which came on his sixth career reception, marked the fastest score by the Gamecocks in a season opener since they joined the SEC in 1992.

After allowing just one first down to UNC, USC got the ball back and quickly marched into Tar Heel territory. The drive featured the first career reception of sophomore tight end Drew Owens and a 21-yard scramble by Shaw.

When the drive stalled at the UNC 30, USC gambled on fourth-and-2 at the NC 30. Wilds was hit by a UNC defender near the line of scrimmage but powered ahead for eight yards to pick up a key first down.

When Shaw just missed connecting with a diving Roland in the middle of the end zone, Fry calmly booted a 39-yard field goal, the first of his career, extending USC's lead to 10-0 with 4:53 left in the first quarter.

After Clowney blew through a double team and disrupted a third down pass, USC took over for the third time and marched 63 yards in seven plays for its second touchdown of the night, a 29-yard pass from Dylan Thompson to wide open walk-on receiver Whitehurst in the right corner of the end zone.

In addition to rushing twice for 13 yards, Shaw completed two passes to Jones and one to K.J. Brent during the drive before Thompson threw the touchdown pass, a sequence reminiscent of the final minutes of the Outback Bowl win over Michigan.

Both Shaw and Thompson connected for touchdown passes on their first passes of the season.

Just when UNC looked down and out, Renner engineered an impressive 16-play, 70-yard drive for the Tar Heels that produced a four-yard touchdown pass to Quinshad Davis in the back middle of the end zone, slicing the Gamecocks' lead to 17-7.

The drive bridged the first and second quarters and consumed 6:09 off the clock, by far UNC's longest possession of the first half.

UNC blundered by fumbling USC's ensuing punt at midfield, but USC managed just one first down before punting the ball away for the second time.

When UNC punted the ball back, USC started the next possession from the SC 48. Shaw first connected with Byrd for a 22-yard gain to the NC 30 and then found Bruce Ellington for 17 yards on his first catch of the season to the NC 12.

However, the drive stalled and USC settled for a 26-yard field goal by Fry with 1:32 left in the second quarter, widening the lead to 20-7.

USC outgained UNC, 260-121 in the first half, but the Gamecocks mustered only 57 yards in the second quarter. Shaw was 10-of-17 passing for 141 yards, almost one-half of that figure coming on the long TD throw to Roland, and led USC is rushing with 41 yards on eight carries.

Mike Davis had 31 yards on eight carries, as USC's first half play-calling was balanced between the run (17) and pass (18).

USC scored on four of six first-half possessions.

Renner was held to 79 yards passing in the first half on 13-of-21, an average of just 6.1 yards per completion.

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