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November 17, 2013

Auburn opens door, USC walks through

COLUMBIA, SC - Auburn opened the door with a miracle last-minute win over Georgia on the Plains, and South Carolina managed to walk through, although the stroll wasn't as easy as some folks anticipated.

Enhancing their SEC East title hopes, the Gamecocks rallied from an eight-point halftime deficit by outscoring Florida, 13-0, in the third and fourth quarters for a hard-fought 19-14 victory over the Gators in front of a season-high crowd of 83,853 fans at Williams-Brice Stadium in the final SEC contest of the year.

By finishing with a 6-2 mark in the SEC for the third straight season, USC officially eliminated Georgia (6-4 overall, 4-3 in SEC) from divisional title contention and forced Missouri into must-win situations in both of their final two conference games at Ole Miss (next Saturday) and home against Texas A&M (Nov. 30).

USC won its fourth game this season by seven points or less.

"Somehow, it worked out again," an elated Steve Spurrier said after improving his record to 74-39 at USC. "We're proud of the guys. We're 6-2 in the conference three years in a row and that's pretty good for us. Our players play like winners. At halftime there wasn't a lot of laugher or much joy in the locker room. But afterwards e had a happy bunch of Gamecocks.

"Maybe something bigger is going to happen for us down the road. This was a wonderful win for South Carolina. Just to get a win the way it started out was good for us, good for the Gamecocks."

If Missouri drops one or both of those games, USC earns the divisional title either outright or by virtue of the head-to-head tiebreaker and would face the Western Division winner in the SEC Championship game on December 7 at the Georgia Dome for the second time in four seasons.

While Mizzou travels to Oxford next Saturday, the Gamecocks host Coastal Carolina at 1 p.m. (PPV) in the first-ever matchup between the two Palmetto State schools.

"We'll watch Missouri play a little bit, but from a distance," Spurrier said. "We'll be getting ready for Coastal Carolina and try to win our ninth game of the season next week if we can."

Auburn outlasted Georgia, 44-38, on a fourth-and-18 Hail Mary pass with under 30 seconds remaining at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Freshman Elliot Fry booted a career-high four field goals, including a pair of three-pointers within a span of 4:27 in the fourth quarter, to give USC the lead for good at 16-14 before adding an insurance field goal with 2:16 left.

By kicking the most field goals in a single USC game since Spencer Lanning had four against Georgia in 2009, Fry is now 14-of-17 on the season, including 6-of-8 from beyond 40 yards.

His final field goal of the night forced Florida into needing a touchdown to prevail, but they failed to threaten to score against the USC defense on two possessions.

USC's lone touchdown of the night came on a clutch fourth-down pass from 32 yards out from Connor Shaw to Bruce Ellington early in the third quarter.

USC improved to 8-2 overall, while Florida dropped to 4-6 overall, 3-5 in the SEC and must beat undefeated rival Florida State at home on November 30 to attain bowl eligibility.

Even though Florida battled a Top 10 team to the wire, the setback did nothing to aid coach Will Muschamp's job security as far as the Gators' demanding fan base is concerned.

"I am extremely proud of our players and the way they continued to fight in the game," embattled Florida coach Will Muschamp said afterwards. "There's a lot of negativity out there. These guys pulled together and showed you a little something of what we're about. We just need to make some plays in those situations and win the game."
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Besides putting USC squarely into position to win the division should Mizzou falter against Ole Miss or Texas A&M, the Gamecocks extended their home winning streak to 16, the longest in school history. USC last lost at home in September of 2011 to, ironically, Auburn.

Shon Carson broke loose for a 58-yard run when USC was backed up at its 5-yard line midway through the fourth quarter, and the longest run allowed by the Florida defense this season led to Fry's eventual game-winning field goal.

Undoubtedly the best performance of his career, Carson rushed for 102 yards on 13 carries for the first 100-yard game of his career, while Mike Davis ran for 54 yards on 13 carries. Carson's previous single-game career high had been 56 yards at Arkansas earlier this season.

"It felt great. I have been through a lot of injures and now all of my hard work over the summer is paying off," Carson said.

Connor Shaw was 14-of-28 for 213 yards and one touchdown. Florida threw only 14 passes, running the ball 41 times for 200 yards, often out of the Wildcat.

Shaw tied Todd Ellis at 24 for most career wins by a Gamecock quarterback, and improved to 15-0 at home and 24-5 overall in 29 career starts.

"Florida's defense is really good. We knew that coming in. They're one of the top [teams] in the league," Shaw said. "We just couldn't find the rhythm in the first half down in the red zone. The second half, I thought we battled a little bit stronger. We adjusted at half-time and came out and found a way to win."

Defensively, USC bounced back from a mediocre first half (169 rushing yards, 177 yards total for Florida) to limit the Gators to 130 total yards in the second half, including just 31 yards on the ground in 19 rushing attempts (1.63 yards per rush).

Florida's seven second-half possessions ended with three punts, a missed field goal, downs, interception and the end of the game.

"Our defense was sensational in the second half," Spurrier said. "Florida had us on our heels a little bit in the first half running the ball. But our guys got tougher in the second half and shut Florida down pretty good."

Spurrier gambled on fourth-and-3 from the UF 32 on USC's initial second-half possession, and the roll of the dice worked as Shaw rolled left and found Ellington in the end zone, cutting the deficit to 14-13 with 10:23 left in the third quarter.

Ellington outfought the Florida defensive back for the space as he made his team-leading sixth touchdown grab of the season.

"It was a play designed for (Damiere) Byrd to get the ball, but I saw my defender sitting so I just ran right past him," Ellington said. "Connor did a heck of a job throwing the ball, and I scored a touchdown.

Jordan Diggs gave Florida an automatic first down when he was flagged for roughing the passer, and the Gators took advantage by driving inside the red zone.

But Jadeveon Clowney came through with one of his highlight reel tackles of the year, pummeling the Florida ball carrier for a 6-yard loss on third down, and Gator placekicker Frankie Velez missed a 32-yard field goal.

With under 10 minutes left, USC forced a Gator punt from inside Gamecock territory and Victor Hampton called for a fair catch at the 10.

Needing a field goal to take the lead, Shon Carson snapped off the longest run of his career, a 58-yard scamper through the middle of the Florida defense to the UF 29.

Shaw lofted a pass to Busta Anderson, who outjumped a Florida defender for the ball inside the 5-yard line. However, USC couldn't punch the ball into the end zone (a third down pass attempt to Shaq Roland in the left corner of the end zone was ruled incomplete and the call was upheld on review) and settled for three points as Elliott Fry booted his third field goal of the night to give USC the lead for the first time since the first quarter, 16-14.

"Shon Carson finally broke a run there at the end, caught a little draw play and somehow popped out of there," Spurrier said. "He must have gone 50 or 60 yards or so, but we still had to kick a field goal."

Florida inexplicably attempted a fourth-down pass to defensive lineman Leon Orr out of a bizarre formation, gifting the Gamecocks the ball at the UF 32.

Fry's fourth field goal of the night from 43 yards, his second from beyond 40 yards, increased USC's lead to 20-14 with 2:16 left and forced the Gators into touchdown-or-else mode.

Florida completed a couple of passes, but redshirt freshman quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg then made the mistake you would expect from a young signal caller seeing the first action of his career. He rolled right and tried to force a throw to a well-covered receiver.

Jimmy Legree stepped in front of a poorly thrown ball for his team-leading third interception of the season. USC ran three plays, but because Florida had just two timeouts remaining, the Gamecocks were able to drain the clock to 26 seconds for the fourth-down punt.

The punt rolled dead at the 1-yard line with just 12 seconds remaining, and Florida tied a hook-and-ladder play but the receiver was tackled at the UF 35 and the Gamecock players raced onto the field to celebrate the victory.

Helped by a 39-yard pass to Damiere Byrd on third down, USC took the opening kickoff and moved 70 yards in 10 plays until the drive stalled at the 2-yard line.

Fry booted a 25-yard field goal to give USC a 3-0 lead with 10:21 remaining in the first quarter.

Relying mainly on freshman running back Kelvin Taylor, the Gators' first possession produced an 11-play, 67-yard touchdown drive. Taylor carried seven times for 38 yards, capping the march with a 20-yard jaunt down the left sideline for Florida's first score of the night.

USC responded by moving 57 yards in nine plays towards Elliott Fry's career-long 45-yard field goal. Shaw's 23-yard pass completion to Busta Anderson pushed USC to the UF 29. However, a short run by Davis and a pair of incomplete passes brought on Fry.

Runs of 32 yards by Mack Brown and a final 29-yard scamper by Taylor gave Florida its second touchdown of the night and a 14-6 lead with 10:51 left in the second quarter.

USC moved to the fringe of the red zone on its final first-half possession but Fry missed a 38-yard field goal attempt from 38 yards out that would have sliced the deficit to five points.

Florida outgained USC, 177-165, in the first half. Consistent with Spurrier's philosophy about trying to establish the pass first, USC threw the ball 19 times and ran it 16 times in the first half.

Mike Davis rushed eight times for 49 yards in the first half, while Shaw was 9-of-19 passing for 112 yards. Byrd had three receptions for 53 yards.

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