With South Carolina's Mr. Everything sidelined with a season-ending injury, the burden fell upon Blake Mitchell to lead the Gamecocks to victory.
He responded with a drive for the ages.
With the score tied at 28-28 and 3:47 left on the clock, the redshirt sophomore quarterback propelled South Carolina to a stirring 7-play, 77-yard romp down the field for the game-winning points in USC's thrilling 35-28 victory over the Vanderbilt Commodores Saturday afternoon before 76,427 fans at Williams-Brice Stadium.
But USC and its fans had to hold its breath one final time as Jay Cutler drove Vanderbilt 45 yards down the field before four straight incompletions from the USC 30 – the final one with four seconds left - gave the Gamecocks the much-needed victory.
USC improved to 4-3 overall, 2-3 in the SEC, and kept its bowl hopes alive. Vanderbilt fell to 4-4 overall, 2-3 in the SEC, with its fourth straight crushing loss after a perfect 4-0 start.
USC travels to Knoxville, Tenn., next Saturday for a 7:45 showdown with the slumping Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium. The contest will be nationally televised on ESPN2. Tennessee lost, 6-3, on the road to Alabama on Saturday to fall to 3-3 this season.
"I guess we found a way to keep the fans here for the duration," USC head coach Steve Spurrier said. "That was a fun game. I always tell our guys that it's going to be a tough, physical game going into the fourth quarter because that's the way you want to mentally prepare your guys. Sure enough, that's exactly what happened today. I thought it was neat the way our guys drove down the field with the score tied to win it and our defense held on at the end to preserve it."
The Gamecocks' victory was marred, though, by the post-game announcement that Syvelle Newton – who rushed for 81 yards and a touchdown, threw two touchdown passes, and caught one ball for eight yards, had suffered a torn Achilles heel on his lone touchdown run with 11:01 left in the game.
Newton has been declared out for the season and, as his performance Saturday showed, will be sorely missed.
"What a performance by Syvelle Newton," Spurrier said. "When he went in something barely snapped they said. But they can repair those and hopefully he'll come back 100 percent next year. That's about as good an individual performance by a football player that I've seen in a long time."
Added Newton: "After I scored, somebody jumped on my foot and something happened to it. I don't know if it was celebrating or not."
Mitchell rebounded from a shaky performance in the first half (4-for-13) to complete 15-of-27 passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns. A first-quarter pass was returned 13 yards for a touchdown by Vanderbilt defensive back Cheron Thompson.
Mitchell was 11-for-14 for 163 yards in the second half as he won a quarterback duel with Cutler, regarded by many as one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC.
"It was a close, hard-fought game but we stepped up and pulled it out," Mitchell said. "It's never over until it's over. It was a fun win. It was exciting. We had to execute at the end when they tied it up and we had to go make that last drive. We can build on this. We proved we can win a close ball game. We proved we can make enough plays to win a close one."
Sidney Rice continued his outstanding freshman season with eight catches for 132 yards. He had three touchdowns to set a school record for most consecutive games with a touchdown reception – six – breaking the previous mark held by Jermale Kelley.
"We don't want to give him too much praise too early but Sidney is a very talented player," Spurrier said. "I got on him a little bit in the first half for not coming off the line full go. He was sort of feeling his way out. He needs to get in his routes quicker at times. He can run with it. He can do some stuff. You like to have a guy that is a big target. As a wide receiver, he's the kind of guy you like. He's got a chance to help us win big around here. He's got a chance to break some records himself."
Rice now has 34 catches for 555 yards and nine touchdowns in six games this season. He missed the season opener against Central Florida.
"(The record) means a lot to me but I'm not focusing on it that much because I'm focused more on my team winning ballgames," Rice said. "Everybody was talking about a bowl before the game. We knew it all started here. It's a new season from here on out. One game at a time."
Like Mitchell, Cutler struggled in the first half (8-of-14 for 61 yards) before completing 19-of-35 passes for 268 yards in the second half. The fifth-year senior finished with a career high 339 yards passing and completed 27-of-39 passes.
But, unlike the dramatic Arkansas and Wake Forest victories earlier this season, Cutler couldn't deliver a touchdown on the final possession of the game.
"This team has been in this situation before," Cutler said. "We've come back, especially in the fourth quarter. We've got a lot of guys out there, a lot of seniors that want to win and know how to execute in the fourth quarter. We've done it in prior games and this game wasn't any different. We just ran out of time at the end."
After Vandy took the second-half kickoff and drove 72 yards in eight plays for a touchdown to take a 14-7 lead with 11:17 remaining in the third quarter, USC scored touchdowns on its next three possessions to take a comfortable 28-14 lead with 11:01 left in the game.
Newton scored the third touchdown on a 10-yard run. But he stayed down on the ground and had to be helped off the field. He was examined on the sidelines for a few minutes before being carted off to the locker room.
X-rays taken in the USC locker room confirmed that Newton had torn his Achilles heel.
But Vanderbilt rallied behind Cutler to score two touchdowns within a span of 6:22 to tie the score at 28-28.
Vanderbilt's opening drive of the second half was helped by a questionable roughing the passer penalty on Mike West. But USC also allowed Vandy to convert a key 3rd-and-12 when a miscommunication in the secondary left a Commodores wide receiver wide open inside the 10-yard line.
Running back Cassen Jackson-Garrison ran two yards up the middle for the touchdown on the following play.
"I don't think we played as aggressive at certain positions (on the drive) and they made some plays. Their a good football team," USC co-defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix said.
USC responded with a 9-play, 65-yard touchdown drive to tie the score at 14-14. Newton touched the ball on nearly every play. He scrambled 11 yards on a 3rd-and-6 play to keep the drive alive. A 5-yard run by Newton and a 9-yard pass to Rice set the stage for a flea flicker that fooled the Vandy defense.
Mitchell threw a screen to Newton at the 11 and he turned and found tight end Carson Askins alone in the end zone for the touchdown with 7:27 left in the third quarter.
USC's next possession began at its 16. It took just one play – a 31-run catch and run by Rice – to move the ball out to midfield. After a 15-yard pass to Noah Whiteside, Newton took the snap and bounced out to his right before lofting a nice touch pass to Rice running across the middle. Rice raced toward the left sideline, stretched out his 6-foot-4 frame, and managed to break the plane for the touchdown.
Five plays later, USC had the ball back in Vandy territory when Johnathan Joseph intercepted a tipped ball and brought it back to the Vandy 30.
Rice caught a 14-yard pass on a 3rd-and-8 play before Newton took a handoff from Mitchell and after spinning away from one tackle kept his legs moving until he crossed the goal line.
Down by two touchdowns with just under 11 minutes left, Vanderbilt didn't fold, just as you would expect with a fifth-year senior quarterback. Cutler found freshman Earl Bennett (16 catches for 204 yards) in the end zone for his first touchdown pass of the game, completing a lightning-quick 44 second drive.
After USC's ensuing possession faltered just short of midfield, Vanderbilt marched 87 yards in 13 plays to tie the game at 28-28 with 3:55 left. The Commodores converted a 4th-and-10 before Jackson-Garrison rumbled six yards for the game-tying touchdown.
"They had plenty of time which was the problem," Vanderbilt head coach Bobby Johnson said. "It was an extremely exciting game. I'm proud of our guys for hanging in there and making a comeback. I'm a little disappointed in our effort after we tied it to try to get that game into an overtime or get the ball back to our offense."
Mitchell began the game-winning drive by connecting with Kris Clark across the middle for 32 yards on a second-down play to move the ball the Vandy 45. He found Clark again for 14 yards to the Vandy 31.
After Mike Davis (4 carries, 20 yards) ran for eight yards, a screen to Rice gained 19 yards to the 4. One play later, Mitchell hit Rice over the middle near the back of the end zone for the decisive touchdown.
"Our offensive line did a great job blocking so that Blake could get (the passes) off," Clark said. "Sidney being such a deep threat opened up the holes of me so I could get a catch in there. They were playing a cover three and when the safety saw Sidney going on the post, he dropped way back and left the middle of the field wide open and gave me an opportunity."
Vandy nearly pulled off its third dramatic drive of the season to tie the score in the final minute but the USC defense forced Cutler into four straight incompletions.
"We changed our coverages a little bit on that last drive," Nix said. "We went more to a three deep, five underneath instead of a two-deep, five underneath and it helped us get off the field. We had to play more with a three-man rush."
Both offenses stalled for much of the first half as the defenses – both ranked in the bottom half of the SEC in most major categories – dominated the action.
On USC's third possession, Mitchell completed a 24-yard pass to Clark, who watched the ball into his hands despite it being tipped, to move the ball to the Vandy 23. Newton's 14-yard run moved the ball to the 6-yard line. Penalties for holding (Clark) and illegal substitution (Daccus Turman) gave USC a second-and-goal from the 16, when Mitchell connected with Rice for the freshman's first touchdown catch of the game.
Mitchell made a glaring mistake on USC's next possession when he dropped back into the end zone and threw a pass intended for Kris Clark right into the arms of Vandy cornerback Cheron Thompson at the 13. Thompson raced into the end zone for a stunning touchdown to tie the game at 7-7 with 12:45 left in the second quarter.
Vanderbilt, helped by a questionable personal foul penalty and a conversion on 4th-and-1, then moved as far as the USC 25 before a 35-yard field goal attempt was blocked by Fred Bennett, who roared in untouched from the left side.
Vandy made a critical mistake of its own when the Vandy punter dropped the snap and tried to run with the ball. He got as far as the Commodores 33 before being tackled by Johnathan Joseph.
USC looked to be in prime position to take the lead shortly before intermission but Newton was stopped cold for no gain on a 4th-and-1 play from the Vandy 14. The Commodores ran the clock out, content to head to the locker room tied at 7-7.
USC outgained Vandy, 113-103 in the first half, but ran just 12 plays in the second quarter. The second quarter by dominated by the Commodores, who enjoyed a 11:41 to 3:19 advantage in time of possession.
Newton had nine rushes for 37 yards at halftime. Mitchell had one of his most frustrating first halves of the season, completing just 4-of-13 passes for 58 yards and one touchdown. But it was the pick six by Vandy which loomed large at intermission.