It keeps coming back to the last game at Kentucky. The 24-17 win South Carolina eked out two years ago still presents two storylines for the upcoming trip on Saturday.
One, that was the last SEC road game the Gamecocks won and one of only two road games USC has claimed since, going 0-6 in the others (plus 0-2 at neutral sites). Two, the game was the emergence of Stephen Garcia, who saved the day in the fourth quarter, after a magnificent performance by Chris Smelley the week before dissolved into a complete mess.
"It was a fight," defensive tackle Travian Robertson recalled. "We had to make some plays on special teams to win that game. We had to make some key stops on defense."
Coming into the game with a 4-2 record (1-2 SEC), USC was facing a 4-1 (0-1) Kentucky team that featured several new faces (Mike Hartline, Randall Cobb, Derrick Locke) that would still be on the team two years later. The Gamecocks had done their usual early-season roll, beating one "name" team (NC State) and two mid-majors (Wofford and UAB) while losing to Georgia and somehow, to Vanderbilt.
But USC had also gone to Ole Miss the previous week and whipped the Rebels, Smelley throwing for a career-best 327 yards and taking advantage of a terrific defensive game. Named SEC Player of the Week for his performance, coach Steve Spurrier said that Smelley had earned the right to start and play the entire game against Kentucky. Garcia, who had received his only significant action against UAB, would be the backup and play only in case of emergency.
That emergency happened in the middle of the third quarter.
Trailing 17-14, coach Steve Spurrier yanked Smelley after a disastrous 9-of-23 showing, good for 105 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. The Gamecocks had scored one touchdown on Captain Munnerlyn's 81-yard return of a blocked field goal but were stagnant on offense.
Enter Garcia, who immediately directed a drive that should have tied the game. Should have, except place-kicker Ryan Succop was having the worst day of his career and missed a 40-yard field goal.
The clock changed to the fourth quarter and Garcia was at it again, winding up and casting long down the right sideline. A game of long balls had yielded hardly anything so far; as the pass went up, the USC sideline groaned.
Until Jason Barnes out-jumped his defender, hauled in the catch and put USC in position.
That drive became Succop's lone made field goal of the day and the game was tied at 17. Given new life, USC forced a three-and-out and again got Garcia the ball.
Two more passes to Barnes, covering 17 and 38 yards, put USC at Kentucky's 7-yard-line. The Gamecocks hurriedly called for their trick goal-line package, where tackle Justin Sorensen lined up wide, and as soon as the snap got to Garcia, he fired over the middle.
Tight end Weslye Saunders turned around as the ball was in the air, pinned the catch on his shoulder pads and turned back around with the game-winning touchdown.
Garcia wound up throwing for 169 yards on 10-of-14 passes, leading four drives into Kentucky territory. The Gamecocks only scored 10 points but Garcia had his first major victory, a save-the-day game.
"I was probably more lucky than anything," Garcia said on Tuesday. "I kind of just made some throws and some of the guys made some excellent catches. Fortunately we were able to get out of there with a win."
Two years later, stakes are much higher. USC is coming off the biggest win in school history while Kentucky lost a three-point game to Auburn. The Wildcats' offense is explosive, as is the Gamecocks', but USC knows it will have to get some defensive stops and take the game out of a shootout.
Playing on the road, to have the game come down to which team has the last possession wouldn't be good.
"That's the thing that coach Spurrier's been talking about," Garcia said. "He said that we can easily lose to Kentucky if we're not focused and we just go in there thinking we're going to beat them."
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