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September 14, 2013

Gamecocks shut the door on Vanderbilt

In spite of a few anxious moments in the fourth quarter, South Carolina was ultimately able to close the door.

However in this case, the 'Dores.

Overcoming a pair of special team mistakes in the first five minutes of the fourth quarter and some shaky defense in the second half, USC senior cornerback Jimmy Legree intercepted a pass at the goal line just when it looked like Vanderbilt was about to pull within a field goal, helping preserve a 35-25 victory over Vanderbilt Saturday night in front of a sellout crowd of 81,371 fans at Williams-Brice Stadium.

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So, after watching a four-touchdown lead shrink to 10 points in the fourth quarter, South Carolina heads into the bye week with the first conference win of the season on the ledger.

"That was a good win for the Gamecocks and we're happy to get a good win," Steve Spurrier said afterwards. "It was a game that looked like we were dominating. We scored on the first four possessions and then stuff started happening."

In a role reversal from last week when Georgia ran out the final eight minutes to keep the USC offense on the sidelines, the Gamecocks drained 7:46 off the clock on their final possession with an impressive and timely 17-play drive in which they ran the ball 16 times and, more importantly, generated four first downs, forcing Vanderbilt to exhaust their time outs.

By the time Vanderbilt got the ball back, just 55 seconds remained in the contest.

USC improved to 2-1 overall, 1-1 in the SEC, while Vanderbilt fell to 1-2, 0-2 in the SEC.

The Gamecocks dominated the statistics, outgaining Vanderbilt by more than a 2-to-1 margin (579-268), registering 31 first downs, converting 11-of-17 third down opportunities and controlling the ball for over 37 minutes by running a season-high 87 plays.

The 579 yards of total offense was the second-highest single game total in Spurrier's nine seasons as Gamecock head coach, trailing only the 639 yards accumulated against Kentucky in 2011.

Moreover, the 31 first downs tied for second-most under Spurrier.

But an interception late in the first half that led to a short touchdown run by Vanderbilt and the two aforementioned special teams mistakes (fumble on kickoff, punt hit player in foot) early in the fourth quarter allowed Vanderbilt to hang around, and put it in position to potentially mount a comeback for the ages before it was thwarted by Legree's fourth career interception and USC's time-consuming drive.

"Good play for Jimmy Legree. He made a nice pick from the guy on the slant," Spurrier said. "And then Connor Shaw was running it out of the end zone. Fortunately, he was able to run it out of the pocket."

USC won its 13th straight home game, matching the second-longest winning streak at Williams-Brice Stadium in school history.

Displaying pinpoint passing, Connor Shaw completed 21-of-29 passes for 284 yards and three touchdowns, and led the Gamecocks in rushing with 84 yards on 19 carries. Mike Davis amassed 77 yards on 17 carries. Bruce Ellington caught eight passes for 111 yards.

With 38 career touchdown passes, Shaw is now tied with Anthony Wright and Blake Mitchell for fourth on USC's all-time career touchdown passes list.

"Connor played very well," Spurrier said. "He had a heckuva game. He's a really good passer. We gave him a game ball. This might have been the best we've ever looked on offense since I've been here, in the first quarter anyways. Then it started slowing down a little bit."

USC had two scoring drives of more than 90 yards in a nearly flawless first half. The last time USC had a pair of touchdown drives over 90 yards in a single game was 2011 against The Citadel.

The Gamecocks rushed for 220 yards on 49 attempts, the third straight game USC has exceeded 200 yards on the ground this season.

"We got dominated on the offensive and defensive lines in the first half," Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin said. "We didn't play particularly smart, either. I thought we showed up in the second half and played with passion and emotion. But we had two turnovers in the red zone and that really hurt us."

Defensively, USC allowed fewer than 300 yards for the second time this season as Vanderbilt converted just two-of-12 third down chances.

"We played better," USC defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said. "Some situations occurred that we could have handled better, so we will address some of those issues and make sure teams can't run the football. We have to key in on the quarterback."

Ahead 28-10, USC took the second half kickoff and methodically marched 75 yards in 10 plays, a drive culminating with a 33-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Wilds, who turned a short middle screen into the first receiving score of his career.

Vanderbilt drove as far as the SC 17 on its first possession of the second half until Jadeveon Clowney came up with perhaps his first highlight play of the season. He blew past a VU blocker on first down and flattened Austyn Carta-Samuel from the edge, jarring the ball loose.

Kelcy Quarles fell on the loose football at the SC 23.

Vanderbilt drove 51 yards in 10 plays, all on the ground, to cut USC's advantage to 35-17 on the second play of the fourth quarter. However, Shon Carson fumbled on the ensuing kickoff return and Vanderbilt needed just one play - a middle screen - to score from 19 yards out.

"Obviously, we had some careless plays," Spurrier said. "I told Coach (Joe) Robinson that we've got to get you some better players out there. I don't know what we're doing, but we don't make anything happen."

When Vanderbilt converted the two-point play, the Commodores were suddenly within two scores, an unthinkable proposition late in the second quarter when the Gamecocks led comfortably by four touchdowns.

USC started the ensuing possession on a positive note as Shaw raced for 21 yards, but the drive stalled and they had to punt.

Vanderbilt took over at its 20, and was stopped without generating a first down. The punt, though, ricocheted off the foot of T.J. Gurley and recovered by Vanderbilt at the SC 37.

The Commodores drove inside the 10-yard line before Legree stepped in front of a pass intended for Jordan Cunningham for a huge interception. He fell down at the 1-yard line, but USC had the key defensive stop.

After Shaw bounced outside on a quarterback sneak to pick up a huge first down, a well-executed option pitch to Davis for 16 yards registered the second first down of the possession, assuring more valuable time would drain from the clock.

Wilds gained 12 yards on second-and-13 to put USC in position for a fresh set of downs. But it didn't happen until Shaw plowed forward on fourth down.

When Wilds powered ahead for three yards on third-and-2 with just over two minutes left. USC could feel finally feel at ease.

The maligned Gamecock defense forced a three-and-out on Vanderbilt's opening series and a short punt gave USC good position at the VU 43.

Two quarterback keepers by Shaw and a swing pass to Davis helped moved the ball inside the red zone in four plays. Shaw then threaded the needle with a laser beam pass to Nick Jones in the back middle of the end zone for the first touchdown of the contest with 10:50 remaining in the first quarter.

After another defensive stop, USC took over at its 7-yard line and converted a key third-and-7 from the SC 10-yard line when Shaw connected with Busta Anderson for 11 yards.

Another huge third down conversion by the Gamecocks occurred when Davis took a swing pass and rumbled 38 yards to the VU 24. Two plays later, Davis carried four yards for his third rushing touchdown of the season, capping an 11-play, 93-yard drive.

Dylan Thompson took the quarterback reins for USC's possession, but the results were the same. The redshirt junior from Boiling Springs directed an eight-play, 76-yard touchdown drive that gave USC a 21-0 lead with 32 second left in the first quarter.

Thompson faked a handoff to Davis and powered into the end zone from three yards out for his third career rushing touchdown. He was 5-of-5 passing for 67 yards on the drive, his first of the season after taking just one snap in the first two games.

USC dominated the first quarter statistically, outgaining Vanderbilt, 211-29. Shaw connected on 8-of-11 passing for 106 yards and led USC is rushing with 22 yards on four carries in the first quarter.

Ellington had four receptions for 40 yards in the first quarter.

Two long catches by Ellington, including a 26-yard TD strike from Shaw, highlighted USC's eight-play, 92-yard for the fourth touchdown of the night, pushing the lead to 28-0 with 10:03 left in the second quarter.

After the Gamecocks dominated the first 26 minutes of the game, momentum swung in Vanderbilt's favor when Thompson's pass towards the right sidelines was intercepted by Steven Clarke at the VU 30.

Clarke eluded several USC tacklers as he romped down the sidelines before finally being pushed out-of-bounds at the 1-yard line. Vanderbilt needed just one play to score as Jerron Seymour ran over from one yard out, putting the Commodores on the board with 3:38 left in the second quarter.

When an apparent completion (and fumble recovered by USC) to Jones was reversed upon review, Vanderbilt got one final chance and it drove to the SC 37 before Carey Spears, one of the top placekickers in the SEC and a Lou Groza Award candidate, booted a 54-yard field goal at the halftime buzzer.

USC outgained Vanderbilt, 381-95 in the first half, converted eight-of-nine third downs and controlled the ball for 19:43.

Shaw completed 14-of-20 passes for 199 yards and two touchdowns, while Thompson was 7-of-9 for 75 yards. USC snapped the ball 52 times - 29 passes (274 yards) and 23 runs (107 yards).

Davis amassed 45 yards rushing on nine carries in the first half.

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