NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier insisted a couple of days ago that USC's matchup with Vanderbilt would be a down-to-the-wire affair.
In a way, it was.
But that was before - in a complete reversal of fortune from last week's loss at Kentucky - the Gamecocks dominated the second half en route to a 21-7 victory over the pesky Commodores in front of 33,425 fans at Vanderbilt Stadium.
USC controlled the ball for almost 20 minutes as they outscored (14-0) and outgained Vanderbilt (315-70) in the second half to pull out the win after the two teams concluded the opening half tied.
The win snapped USC's seven-game conference road losing streak and marked their first win against a SEC opponent outside of Columbia since October of 2008.
"We're happy we won the second half," a happy Spurrier said afterwards. "We have not played well in the second half in our road losses. But we actually won the second half tonight. We need to try to continue that if we're going to have a big year. We're happy to get out of here with a victory."
The Gamecocks defense responded to the unrelenting criticism from last week's second-half meltdown in Lexington by forcing six punts and stopping Vandy on downs in the Commodores' seven second half possessions.
USC finished with 484 yards of total offense, the third time in seven games this season the Gamecocks have compiled 449 yards or more in a single game.
USC improved to 5-2 overall and 3-2 in the SEC, while Vanderbilt fell to 2-5, 1-3. The Gamecocks face struggling Tennessee (2-5, 0-4) next Saturday at 12:20 p.m. at Williams-Brice Stadium. The contest will be televised on the SEC Network.
Together with Georgia's 44-31 victory over Kentucky, USC's ninth win in 11 games on the Commodores' home field gave the Gamecocks undisputed possession of first place in the SEC East for the second straight week, one-half game ahead of the red-hot Bulldogs (3-3 in SEC). Florida (2-3 in SEC) is third.
For the first time in school history, USC had a 100-yard rusher (Brian Maddox with career-high 146 yards) and two 100-yard receivers (Tori Gurley and Alshon Jeffery). Gurley had a monster night with a career-high 13 receptions for 109 yards, while Jeffery had nine catches for 158 yards, including a 72-yard TD reception from Garcia midway through the fourth quarter that clinched the win.
"I just saw (Garcia) scramble and went deep," Jeffery smiled.
Quarterback Stephen Garcia threw for over 350 yards for the second straight outing as he completed 31-of-39 passes for two touchdowns. Many of his throws were wide receiver screens or short throws over the middle to Jeffery and Gurley, as USC ruthlessly exploited Vanderbilt's zone blitz.
"A lot of guys really played well tonight," Spurrier said. "Brian Maddox made some really nice runs. Stephen Garcia hit some passes, although a lot of them were short. We got the big one with Alshon at the end to sort of put it away."
Garcia was brilliant in the second half, completing 14-of-17 passes for 196 yards, including a laser beam throw on the run to Jeffery on the 72-yard TD play.
"They were running the same defense throughout the whole game, the zone blitz," Garcia said. "They were blitzing us a lot. I think we finally learned how to pick it up."
Freshman Ace Sanders had a career-high five receptions for 54 yards.
Maddox had 123 rushing yards and a short two-yard TD run in the second half after replacing starter Kenny Miles (11 carries for 25 yards) as the go-to back.
"He (Maddox) did excellent," Spurrier said. "Kenny just couldn't get a hole tonight. We didn't block very well when Kenny was in there, or he would cut right into (a tackler). Kenny couldn't catch a break. I feel bad for Kenny. When Brian got his chance, he was making things happen."
Freshman Marcus Lattimore did not play because of a sprained ankle and ultimately wasn't needed after Spurrier suggested earlier in the week he might be healthy enough to play.
After allowing 180 yards of offense in the first half, USC's defense clamped down on Vanderbilt in the second half as the Commodores reverted back to the team USC saw on film in earlier games against LSU and Georgia.
Vanderbilt, which had just three first downs in the second half, has scored a total of 10 points in their three SEC losses this season.
By deferring at the start of the game, USC had the ball at the start of the second half. They converted a key third-and-long by inches when Tori Gurley caught a pass and fought for first-down yardage.
However, an incomplete screen pass to Jeffery on third down was ruled a lateral, moving USC back about five yards and forcing a punt.
The USC defense held and only a booming 60-yard punt pulled Vandy out of danger. USC took over at its 30 with 10:30 left in the third quarter.
But Garcia's deep pass to Ace Sanders on the first snap was intercepted by a Vandy defensive back. Or so it seemed. The play was reviewed and the interception call was upheld.
Again, the USC defense held Vandy to limited yardage (13 yards on four plays) and forced VU's fifth punt of the night. However, USC was penalized for holding, moving the ball back to the USC 7 for their third possession of the second half.
USC switched into hurry-up mode, a tactic which seemed to unnerve the Commodores defense. The Gamecocks initially turned to Maddox, who pounded out 20 yards on three carries to move the ball out to the 27.
USC then turned to the pass with Garcia finding Gurley three times for 19 yards to move the ball beyond midfield. After Maddox gutted out another 15-yard gain, Garcia threaded the needle between three VU defenders for his fourth completion to Gurley on the drive.
The longest play of the drive covered 23 yards.
"Coach Spurrier and Junior and the coordinators did a great job of reading Vanderbilt's defense," Gurley said. "They put everybody in position to make plays and tonight I was just the guy with the high hat."
Two snaps later, Maddox ran up the middle from two yards out for his second TD of the season to give USC a 14-7 lead with 3:17 left in the third quarter.
The TD run, USC's 14th rushing touchdown of the season, capped a 93-yard, 12-play drive by the Gamecocks.
A chop block penalty forced VU into a 1st-and-25 situation on their following possession and the USC defense handled it with ease, stopping the 'Dores at the 19 on third-and-a-mile.
The third quarter ended with USC holding a 14-7 advantage.
On the first snap of the fourth quarter, Maddox burst through the VU defense for a 38-yard scamper down to the VU 15. But USC couldn't push the ball into the end zone and Lanning came on for a 26-yard field goal attempt, his first try since the Furman game.
But the kick was blocked by the middle of the VU line to keep the advantage at seven points.
The defense forced three straight incompletions, though, as Vanderbilt was forced from their comfort zone in an attempt to move down the field.
Sanders was tackled at the 13 on VU's fourth punt of the second half, putting USC 87 yards from a potential game-clinching score.
USC converted a clutch 3rd-and-7 from the 16 when Garcia found a wide-open Sanders on the right side for a 16-yard gain out to the 32, where the freshman was knocked out of bounds.
The next snap, Garcia connected with Jeffery for 16 yards on yet another successful wide receiver screen.
Garcia fumbled on a third-down scramble that almost picked up the first down yardage. The ground clearly caused the fumble and the call on the field was rightfully reversed.
Instead of gambling on fourth down, Spurrier elected to punt, but a solid kick by Lanning that was downed inside the 5-yard line was nullified by a penalty (too many men in the backfield). Lanning's second punt bounced into the end zone for a touchback.
After allowing nine yards on an option pitch, the USC defense stiffened and forced yet another Vandy punt.
USC took over at its 28-yard line with 7:34 left and looking for the clinching score.
They got it in dramatic fashion.
On second-and-10 from the 28, Garcia scrambled to his right away from pressure and lofted a perfect pass down the right sideline to Jeffery, who caught the ball in stride and outraced the VU defender for a 72-yard touchdown play with 6:41 left in the game.
Jeffery's sixth TD reception of the year gave USC a 21-7 lead and put it out of reach of the struggling Vanderbilt offense.
Vanderbilt's only significant drive of the second half came on the final possession when they covered 30 yards on eight plays.
USC QB Stephen Garcia connected with Gurley for a 15-yard TD play with 12 seconds left in the second half as the Gamecocks salvaged a 7-7 first half tie.
Vanderbilt scored their lone TD on a three-yard scamper by Commodores QB Larry Smith.
Garcia, who last weekend became the sixth quarterback in school history to surpass the 5,000-yard passing mark, completed 17 of 22 passes for 159 yards in the first half.
Vanderbilt outgained USC, 180-169, in the first half.
Garcia began the game second in the SEC and fifth nationally in passing efficiency. He was sacked four times in the first half.
Jeffery finished the first half with five receptions for 53 yards, while Gurley had five catches for 42 yards.
After facing harsh criticism all week following their poor second half performance ay Kentucky last weekend, the USC secondary surrendered only 95 passing yards in the first half but had one major bust.
USC entered the game with an SEC-leading 22 sacks in the first six games but couldn't get to Smith once in the first half.
USC won the coin toss but deferred. The decision paid off handsomely when an ill-advised fake punt by the 'Dores was stopped at the line of scrimmage for no gain.
USC took over at its 40 and, largely as a result of two passes to Alshon Jeffery (8 and 20 yards), drove as far as the VU 31. But a false start penalty and a pair of incomplete passes halted the drive.
Miles had three carries for minus-2 yards on USC's opening possession.
Vandy again stunned USC for a long gain on its second possession, but the Gamecocks defense stopped the drive before the 'Dores could cross the 40-yard line.
USC began its second possession at its 16 with 5:43 left in the first quarter.
The Gamecocks converted their first third-down of the drive when Garcia found Jason Barnes alone over the middle for a 15-yard gain on third-and-6.
USC picked up two more third downs on Miles' 3-yard run and then a nine-yard burst by the redshirt sophomore when he bounced outside for a 9-yard gain to the VU 25.
But a VU sack of Garcia on second down and a high shotgun snap on third-and-17 from the 32 on the first snap of the second quarter forced USC to punt from its own territory. The high snap produced a 24-yard loss.
The Commodores drove into USC territory when another bust in coverage left a VU receiver wide open behind the USC secondary. The play gained 35 yards down to the USC 5.
From there, Vandy QB Larry Smith won the race to the corner and he just managed to break the plane of the end zone before diving out-of-bounds near the flag. The three-yard TD run gave VU a 7-0 lead with 10:24 left in the second quarter.
A face mask penalty on the ensuing kickoff allowed USC to start at its 31.
The drive started on a promising note with a pair of runs by Miles but quickly dissolved into a series of errors, including Garcia throwing into triple coverage, a false start penalty and a third-down sack.
Devin Taylor knocked down a third down pass from the USC 45 as the defense denied the Commodores again. The punt bounced into the end zone for a touchback.
USC wiggled out a jam deep in its own territory when back-to-back passes to Sanders and Jeffery picked up a much-needed first down out to the
USC converted another first down on a run up the middle by Maddox but the third third-down of the drive failed to pick up enough yardage and the Gamecocks punted.
USC had an opportunity to recover a fumble when VU messed up a handoff but three Gamecocks couldn't come up with the football.
USC tackled Smith well short of the first down marker and had one final opportunity to put points on the board when they started from their 41 with 1:03 left in the half.
USC faced a third-and-3 from the VU 36 with 36 seconds left. The Gamecocks ran inside with Maddox and he powered his way down to the 29 for a first down.
Two snaps later, Garcia dropped back and patiently waited for Gurley to break open in the left corner of the end zone. The Rock Hill, SC native eventually did and he caught a 15-yard TD pass from Garcia with 12 seconds left to tie the score at 7-7.
USC has now outscored opponents by a 135-55 margin in the first half.
2Q - VU, Smith 3-yard run (Xpt good), 10:24 (0-7)
2Q - USC, Garcia 15-yard TD pass to Gurley (Xpt good), 00:12 (7-7)
3Q - USC, Maddox 2-yard run (Xpt good), 3:17 (14-7)
4Q - USC, Garcia 72-yard pass to Jeffery (Xpt good), 6:41 (21-7).