Nunez dazzles in confidence-building win
Reversing fortunes from a week ago in the third quarter, South Carolina grabbed exactly what it needed Saturday afternoon heading into a loaded October slate - a victory.
Demonstrating why he was one of the top dual-threat prep quarterbacks in the country last year, true freshman Lorenzo Nunez ran for 123 yards and passed for 184 yards for a rare triple-triple by a USC quarterback as USC rebounded from the abysmal outing at Georgia with a 31-14 victory over UCF in front of 78,411 fans at Williams-Brice Stadium.
Snapping a two-game losing streak, USC improved to 2-2 overall and now heads into the meat of the 2015 schedule with road tests at Missouri, Texas A&M and Tennessee, along with a home date against LSU, over the next six weeks.
Nunez, who had runs of 19, 23, 23 and 29 yards against UCF, is the first USC quarterback to reach the century mark in rushing in one game since Connor Shaw did it against Clemson in 2011. Nunez, the 11th different starting quarterback for USC under Spurrier and the third in the last three weeks, became the Gamecocks' first true freshman QB to win his starting debut since Steve Taneyhill in 1992.
"This is new for me, a quarterback that can run like he can," Spurrier said. "He runs about as much as a halfback. We're trying to maximize the talents of our players. He played a little better than we anticipated. We knew he could run, but he hit a bunch of passes too.
Nunez completed 12-of-22 passes, but attempted just six passes in the second half when USC ran the ball 23 times and dominated the line of scrimmage.
"He actually threw the ball a little better than everybody thought he would," Spurrier said. "He completed some nice passes. He played very well."
Just like last weekend's lopsided loss in Athens, the third quarter proved decisive to the outcome. Erasing a 14-8 halftime deficit, a pair of interceptions by T.J. Holloman, who started at middle linebacker for the first time this season, led to two touchdowns less than three minutes apart as the Gamecocks took command by outscoring UCF, 20-0, in the third period.
"I basically told our guys that whoever played the best in the second half was going to win the game," Spurrier said. "We played the best in the second half. It was a good win for us."
After forcing UCF to punt for the second time in the third quarter, USC took possession at its 26 with 9:07 left. Nunez's 23-yard scamper and consecutive rushes by Shon Carson quickly moved the Gamecocks to the UCF 29.
WATCH: Pharoh Cooper's impressive TD scramble, plus the big block from Lorenzo Nunez. #Gamecocks @KingTutt_chdown
On first down, Pharoh Cooper caught a lateral on the right side from Nunez and looked to throw downfield. When nobody broke open, Cooper took off around the left side. Eluding multiple tacklers and getting a great block from Nunez downfield, Cooper raced into the end zone - redeeming himself for a first half muffed punt - to hand USC the lead for good at 15-14 midway through the third quarter.
Moments later, Holloman dove to intercept a tipped pass thrown by UCF quarterback Bo Schneider at the UCF 40-yard line.
Four plays later, Nunez made a huge play on third down-and-6 from the UCF 13 as he stepped back and laser beamed a pass down the middle to wide open tight end Jacob August inside the 5-yard line. August turned and stepped into the end zone for his first career TD catch, expanding USC's lead to 22-14 with 4:39 left in the third quarter.
The Gamecock weren't finished scoring, though, in the third quarter. Holloman picked off Schneider again on an ill-advised pass thrown over the middle, and USC soon converted the turnover into six points when Nunez found a leaping Cooper for a 35-yard TD pass, USC's longest scoring play through the air this season.
Staking a solid claim for SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors, Holloman totaled six tackles, two interceptions, two quarterback hurries and a pass breakup. Holloman, known as a fundamentally sound and intelligent player that often helps his teammates get lined up properly, now has five interceptions in his career.
Awarded a game ball, Holloman keyed a strong defensive effort by the Gamecocks as they held the struggling UCF offense to 230 yards in total offense (3.8 yards per play), including just 26 yards on the ground in 23 carries.
"Our defense played well and we should play well," Spurrier said. "Hopefully, this will tell our guys that we can play defense. We have good players. Hopefully, we can gain some confidence from how we played in the second half."
USC, meanwhile, pounded out 216 rushing yards, eclipsing the 200-yard plateau for the second time this season and overcoming the absence of Brandon Wilds, who sat out the game with bruised ribs suffered last week at Georgia.
The Gamecocks have rushed for at least 174 yards in all four games this season. Saturday, they amassed 144 rushing yards in the second half.
"We finally started running the ball in the third and fourth quarters," Spurrier said. "We tried a little bit earlier but it didn't do any good."
The only points scored in the fourth quarter came on Elliott Fry's 33-yard field goal with 2:53 remaining. His boot capped a 13-play, 49-yard run-dominated drive that drained 8:37 off the clock and effectively ended UCF's comeback hopes.
USC scored on four of five second-half possessions with three touchdowns and a field goal. USC tallied 13 points off UCF turnovers. Contrastly, UCF's six second half turnovers concluded with two punts, two interceptions and two losses on downs.
"Everyone knew what we had to do (in the second half)," Holloman said. "We knew we had to go out there as a defensive team, continue to do our jobs and shut them out and try not to let up. We were very upset with ourselves in the first half. But in the second half we turned it around and showed some improvement."
Cooper finished with four receptions for 69 yards and carried three times for 27 yards as he again played a secondary role to Nunez, who led USC in rushing for the second straight week.
The first half, though, wasn't as kind to Cooper. His muffed punt was by far the biggest play of the first half as UCF managed to take a 14-8 lead into intermission despite mustering just 118 yards in total offense, 93 on a single drive culminating with a 30-yard TD pass that gave the Knights a 14-5 lead.
Unable to put into the end zone despite driving four times into UCF territory, USC settled for two field goals and a safety in the opening 30 minutes.
Nunez led the Gamecocks to a field goal on the initial drive of his first career start. Fry's career-long 52-yarder bested his field goal at the end of the first half of last week's loss at Georgia by one yard.
Eight seconds into the second quarter, after a Sean Kelly punt put the UCF offense into a major hole, freshman defensive end Boosie Whitlow roared through and tackled UCF running back Taj McGowan three yards deep in the end zone for a safety.
The balance of the quarter was mostly forgettable for the Gamecocks. UCF took advantage of Cooper's miscue (he tried to field a punt inside the 5-yard, but muffed it and UCF recovered the loose football) to score on a 1-yard drive for a 7-5 Knights lead less than four minutes into the second quarter.
When USC was forced to punt again, UCF drove 93 yards in just seven plays, scoring on a 30-yard TD pass from Schneider to Tre'Quan Smith.
USC drove into the red zone but settled for a 27-yard field goal by Fry with 1:04 left before halftime to slice the deficit to 14-8.
Nunez was 8-of-16 passing for 95 yards and ran for 71 yards in the first half.
"I played much better in the second half," Nunez said. "In the first half, I was a little shaky. I just wanted to go out there and compete.
FINAL: USC 31, UCF 14. #Gamecocks end 2-game skid, improve to 2-2. Nunez becomes 1st true freshman to win a game for SC since Taneyhill.- GamecockCentral.com (@GamecockCentral) September 26, 2015