The scene was something out of one of those madcap comedies, with everyone running around saying one thing while probably knowing another.
Except no one was laughing.
The NCAA investigation into South Carolina's football program lasted until 45 minutes before the 7:36 p.m. scheduled kickoff, meaning some players had to rush to get changed and warmed up. Before the announcement came, players who were not allowed to travel with the team or stay at the team hotel were holed up in the Crews Football Facility, not knowing if they would be playing or not.
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"We were there at pre-game," confirmed Akeem Auguste, one of 10 players who stayed at The Whitney hotel, the center of the investigation. "First we was all in the players' lounge, playing pool. Coach came in there and yelled at us, told us to get ready, you never know. We were just thinking the worst."
Auguste, C.C. Whitlock, Travian Robertson, Rodney Paulk, Melvin Ingram, Josh Dickerson, Jarriel King, Terrence Campbell, Ladi Ajiboye and Weslye Saunders were all former residents of the hotel, and all but Saunders (who has been indefinitely suspended for the past two weeks) didn't know if they would be cleared to play. Two more names -- Chris Culliver and Marcus Lattimore -- surfaced before the game, although their names were not linked to The Whitney.
Culliver and King were the only two ruled ineligible, as confirmed by a source close to the program just before kickoff. The rest except for Campbell, who was not listed on the participation report (he had missed practice with a sprained ankle earlier this week), played and Robertson, Ingram, Dickerson, Auguste and Whitlock started.
But until they were cleared, standing by the locker room revealed an insanely orchestrated dance.
Support staff handing off phones while running back and forth from the locker room to the Crews building. Assistant coaches being told to approve or dis-approve their players for competition. Apprehensive expressions and nervous glances as the clock ticked toward game time.
It ended rather well, although there's no telling if the NCAA might have approved the players for Southern Miss but might find suspension-worthy improprieties later in the week. Auguste thought that because he was cleared for USM, he would be fine for the season; coach Steve Spurrier wasn't so sure.
"It certainly was a relief that we had almost our entire team ready to play here tonight," Spurrier said. "At one time, it was a possibility that a lot of them might not be ready to play.
"We had a couple that didn't make it. Hopefully they'll be back next week."
The players involved represented a sizable chunk of USC's starting defense, and due to some injuries, the defense had to weather a tough assignment. Auguste and Stephon Gilmore played without any backups; without Culliver, the chore fell to D.J. Swearinger and when he sustained a mild concussion, USC had no nickel defense package.
"(Assistant coach Lorenzo Ward) schools (Auguste) up 20 minutes before the game," defensive head Ellis Johnson said. "Then all of a sudden, D.J. Swearinger gets donged in the head, so he doesn't come out in the second half. So we have no nickel package. We don't even have a third-down defense, personnel-wise."
Johnson said he had no idea if Culliver would be able to return next week. He also said to ask somebody else about the particulars of the NCAA investigation; he was there to talk about football.
USC was already hurting without leading tackler Shaq Wilson, out with a hamstring pull and no definite timetable for his return. Starting spur Antonio Allen was likewise sidelined with a hamstring pull, and while backup Damario Jeffery played well, the Gamecocks don't have many other options if any other players get injured.
"We probably had about 14 or 15 kids who carried that game on their backs," Johnson said. "Some of them had no backups. Not any possible backups, we had no backups."
Auguste led the team with eight tackles while seven other players had at least five. DeVonte Holloman intercepted a pass in the first quarter that squelched a Southern Miss drive after a failed first USC possession; Cliff Matthews stripped a ball that became Tony Straughter's 52-yard recovery and return to stop another Golden Eagles chance.
"I mean, we had to go out there thinking we was ready to play," Auguste said. "I was always with the first team the whole week. Fifteen minutes before special teams was about to go out, they said you can play."
Play they did. Now to do it next week.
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