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August 28, 2014

USC ambushed by high-flying Aggies

Any derogatory adjective you chose from the dictionary would adequately describe the rancid performance by the South Carolina defense on Thursday night.

Outcoached, outclassed and outmaneuvered all night long, the embarrassed Gamecock defense surrendered the most yards in school history, a staggering output of 680 yards on 99 plays, to a supposedly rebuilding Texas A&M offense many analysts believed would take a step backwards without former Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Johnny Manziel.

Instead, the Aggies might have taken a step forward.

Sparked by sharp-looking sophomore quarterback Kenny Hill, who zinged the Gamecocks with a performance for the ages (44-of-60 passing for 511 yards and three touchdowns), and velcro-handed wide receiver Malcome Kennedy (14 receptions for 137 yards), the underrated Aggies steamrolled the Gamecocks, 52-28, in front of 82,847 stunned fans at Williams-Brice Stadium.

Hill's 511 passing yards is the most USC has ever allowed to an opposing quarterback, surpassing the 485 yards amassed by Georgia's Eric Zeier in 1994. USC yielded 600 or more yards in total offense for the fifth time in school history.

When the contest mercifully ended shortly after 9:30 p.m., few people except Steve Spurrier remembered the Gamecocks had been anointed 10-point favorites over Texas A&M entering the game.

"It was obvious the oddsmakers don't know what they're talking about," Spurrier said. "That team was so much better than us it wasn't funny. They outcoached us, outplayed us, they were better prepared and they knew what they were doing."

Thursday night marked the first gridiron meeting between USC and Texas A&M, but it won't be the last. The newly anointed permanent cross-divisional opponents are scheduled to meet next season in College Station, Texas, at Texas A&M's rebuilt Kyle Field.

The first football game televised live by the SEC Network, the disconcerting defeat snapped USC's 18-game home winning streak, and marked just the fourth home defeat for the Gamecocks in the last 38 games played at Williams-Brice.

With fast-paced East Carolina, which runs the frenetic Air Raid offense, coming to Columbia on Sept. 6, the next nine days promise many sleepless nights for defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward and USC's defensive staff.

USC fell to 8-1 in Thursday night season openers under Spurrier, who suffered only his second season opening loss in 25 years as a head coach and was denied his 200th win as an SEC head coach.

Texas A&M dominated USC in every phase, every statistic, every decision. The Aggies were 12-of-17 on third downs compared to 2-for-9 for USC as well as 2-for-2 on fourth downs and controlled the ball for 37:38.

The Aggies collected 39 first downs and scored eight of the nine times they penetrated the red zone. The only time they didn't? End of the game when Texas A&M called off the dogs after getting to the SC 3-yard line.

From whatever angle you look, the Gamecocks suffered a humiliating trouncing of the first degree in front of the home folks.

"It was a mismatch tonight," Spurrier said. "I don't know what else to say. If we played them again, they'd be three touchdown favorites. We tried everything we could to slow them down. Give them credit, they're a much better team than we are. We'll regroup, come back and try to fight against East Carolina in nine days."

Quarterback Dylan Thompson and the USC offense tried to keep up with the high-flying Aggies offense but finally succumbed early in the fourth quarter. Thompson posted respectable numbers, throwing for 366 yards and four touchdowns (both career highs) on 20-of-40 passing. He was sacked three times and intercepted once.

USC was outgained by more than 100 yards on the ground, with Texas A&M ball carriers gaining 169 yards on 39 carries, while the Gamecocks mustered just 67 yards on 22 carries (3.0 yards per attempt) against the SEC's worst run defense a year ago.

"We had to throw the ball way too much to try to make some yards," Spurrier said. "We didn't run the ball well at all and we didn't have a chance to even stay on the field very long. We got into a throw every down type of contest and we're not good enough pass blockers or throwers to get into that."

Brandon Wilds led USC with 45 yards rushing on nine carries, while Nick Jones caught five passes for a career best 113 yards, two for touchdowns.

In the wake of a disastrous first half defensively (393 yards for Texas A&M), USC pulled to within 38-21 midway through the third quarter when Thompson hit Pharoh Cooper on a 5-yard TD pass.

Inexplicably, the Gamecocks attempted an onsides kick and the move backfired as Texas A&M recovered at the SC 42 and promptly drove the distance in eight plays, capped by a two-yard TD run by running back Tra Carson, his third touchdown of the night.

USC roared back, scoring on a 10-yard TD pass to Nick Jones, Dylan Thompson's fourth scoring toss of the night.

When the Gamecock defense finally forced the Texas A&M defense to punt for the first time since the first quarter, the crowd erupted, sensing a historic comeback.

But Thompson's floater down the left sideline was intercepted by Texas A&M defensive back Armani Watts on the next-to-last play of the third quarter, the first turnover by either team in the nearly four-hour contest.

Following Thompson's sixth career interception, the Aggies clinched the victory when Trey Williams powered over from two yards out, finalizing a 10-play, 83-yard scoring drive that increased Texas A&M's lead to 52-28.

Texas A&M took the opening kickoff and efficiently moved 67 yards down the field in nine plays for the first touchdown of the game on a 1-yard touchdown plunge by Tra Carson. Hill, looking comfortable early in his first career start, connected with Ricky Seals-Jones on a 22-yard pass over the middle on the previous play, beating spur Sharrod Golightly. Seals-Jones fell into the end zone but was ruled down at the 1.

A pass interference call against Shaq Roland gave USC a first down at the SC 32 on its first possession, but the Gamecocks soon punted.

The Aggies took over at its 10, but Hill soon carved up the Gamecock defense again, scrambling nine yards for a first down on third-and-7 and connecting with receivers for gains of 19 and 18 yards.

However, freshman Speedy Noil dropped a wide receiver screen pass when it appeared he had room to secure the first down and the Aggies settled for a 33-yard field goal with 5:02 left in the first quarter.

Trailing 10-0, USC needed a spark in the worst way and they got it when Thompson, usually accurate on long passes over the middle, fired a missile to the streaking Jones for a 69-yard scoring play, USC's first touchdown of the 2014 season.

Gerald Dixon dropped Hill for a second down sack on Texas A&M's ensuing possession - USC's first of the season - and the Aggies punted for the first time.

Although outgained 165-98, USC had seized momentum by the time the first quarter ended with the Gamecocks trailing, 10-7. Thompson was 3-of-6 for 78 yards in the first quarter, while Davis carried five times for 19 yards. Hill was 10-of-13 for 105 yards and looked anything but a true sophomore making his first career start.

Hill led Texas A&M on a 9-play, 85-yard TD drive within the first three minutes of the second quarter. When the drive ended on a three-yard slant pass to Seals-Jones, Hill was 16-of-20 for 172 yards.

Again trailing by 10 points, USC turned to the Wildcat with Pharoh Cooper and picked up one first down. Moments later, on second-and-10 from the TAMU 46, Thompson dropped back and flipped a touchdown pass to a wide open Damiere Byrd, who had outrun the Aggies coverage by at least five yards.

The lightning-fast Byrd snagged the pass in stride and strolled into the end zone for his eighth career touchdown reception. More importantly, the scoring play shaved USC's deficit to 17-14 with 9:47 left in the second quarter.

Quieting the sellout crowd, Texas A&M responded to the temporary adversity by driving 85 yards in 12 plays in less than three minutes to push the lead back to 10 points, 24-14, with 7:07 left in the second quarter,

When Texas A&M's fourth scoring drive of the night concluded with seven points, Hill was 21-of-26 passing for 241 yards and two touchdowns.

Bolstered by two pass interference flags on the Aggies, USC moved into TAM territory, but the drive stalled at the 41 and the Gamecocks punted.

Taking possession with 3:35 left in the second quarter, the Aggies again romped down the field, driving 80 yards in 11 plays in 2:19, scoring on a two-yard TD run by Tra Carson with 1:16 left in the first half.

Scattered boos rained down from the stands as the defense trotted off the field.

Elliott Fry missed a 54-yard yard field goal attempt in the waning seconds of the first half.

The nightmarish details for the USC defense in the first half revealed Texas A&M's domination: the Aggies ran 53 plays for 393 yards in total offense compared to 216 yards on 34 plays for the Gamecocks.

Hill was 27-of-35 passing for 299 yards and two touchdowns, while Texas A&M added another 94 yards on the ground.

The Aggies scored four touchdowns, booted a field goal and punted once in their six first half possessions.

Thompson, meanwhile, was 8-of-18 passing for 188 yards, 115 yards coming on the two long TD throws to Jones and Byrd. The Gamecocks struggled to generate anything on the ground, gaining just 28 yards on 16 carries.

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