In Steve Spurrier's first six years as South Carolina coach, the Gamecocks have annually found themselves in a life-or-death struggle with Vanderbilt.
Starting in 2005, when USC outlasted the Commodores and a certain VU quarterback named Jay Cutler, 35-28, most of the gridiron battles between the schools have come down to the fourth quarter.
Even though USC won, 21-7, in Nashville last year, the score was tied 7-7 at halftime and the win wasn't secured until quarterback Stephen Garcia scrambled out of the pocket and hit Alshon Jeffery for a 72-yard touchdown pass with 6:41 remaining in the fourth quarter.
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Just three of the six USC-Vanderbilt games Spurrier has coached in have been decided by more than 10 points. The average margin of victory has been 10.2 points. But take away USC's 31-13 win in 2006 and the gap falls to 8.6 points.
In short, the difference between the teams in recent years has essentially been a touchdown. Spurrier expects another stern test from the Commodores this year, especially since Vanderbilt enters the game flying high with a 3-0 record in James Franklin's first year as head coach.
"They're playing with confidence and their defense is playing exceptionally well," Spurrier said Wednesday during the SEC teleconference. "It will be a good challenge, as it always is when we play Vandy. We've had close games with them just about every year I've been here. It will probably be another down-to-the-wire game. We'll see what happens."
Last Saturday's 24-21 victory over Navy was the second three-point win for the Gamecocks in two weeks and marked the third straight game in which they rallied for the victory. With one SEC win in their pocket, the Gamecocks look to strengthen their position in the SEC East race.
Yesterday, Spurrier proclaimed he was pleased with the consecutive hard-fought, three-point wins over Georgia and Navy. But he continued preaching USC had to play better on both sides of the ball.
"Hopefully, our team can start playing a little bit better," Spurrier said. "We're still struggling a bit on offense and defense. But we've had some good things happen also."
Except for scoring offense (2nd, 41.7 ppg) and rushing offense (1st, 242.3 ypg), USC is listed in the bottom half of the SEC in most of the major statistical categories, offensively and defensively.
After watching the Vanderbilt defense on film, Spurrier understands why the Commodores have forced a league-high 12 turnovers with a turnover margin of plus-6. The second place team has created nine turnovers. That school? USC.
"It seems like Coach Franklin and his staff has these guys excited to play," Spurrier said. "They're having a lot of fun playing the game right now. They'll come to play. Heck, that's how we're trying to get our guys to look like out there, that they're having fun. It looks Vanderbilt made an excellent hire."
Turnover margin could be one of the biggest keys in the game in terms of determining the winner, as it usually is when the game is close.
"Vandy is very well coached. Those guys are in position," Spurrier said. "Sometimes I'm amazed the other teams get their guys in position all the time and it seems like we're struggling to get our guys in position defensively. We've given up a bunch of passing yards this year.
"We're trying to get our guys fundamentally sound. But Vanderbilt certainly is. Their defensive coordinator has done a super job. They play all the coverages and play them well. They have some defensive backs who love interceptions. That's a big reason Vandy is 3 and 0."
Three of Vanderbilt's 13 touchdowns have come on defense. In fact, the defenses for both USC and Vandy have combined for six touchdowns. The highest number of defensive touchdowns by any of the other 10 SEC teams is one.
"All 11 of their players are active and play well," Spurrier said about the Commodores. "They have good athletes back there. They play their assignments. When they get into a zone, they're spread out nicely across the field. They don't mess up. I'm impressed watching them play."
Another key factor in the matchup will be Vanderbilt's ability to stop USC running back Marcus Lattimore, the nation's leading rusher with an average of 178.0 yards per game.
Lattimore missed last year's meeting in Nashville because of a sprained ankle sustained the previous week at Kentucky, but Brian Maddox filled in admirably with a career-high 146 yards rushing and the game-clinching touchdown.
But Spurrier gets chills thinking about life for the USC offense without Lattimore on the field.
"We're better off with him than not without him, let's put it that way," Spurrier said. "That's been proven. But I don't think we'll be able to run him every play like last week. Maybe we can throw some quick screens out and spread the ball around."
Lattimore is averaging 29 carries per game through the first three weeks, leading to speculation by some pundits that USC is 'overusing' the sophomore running back. Spurrier admits he would prefer to see the number of Lattimore's carries dip to between 20 and 25 per game and get other running backs involved.
But as long as USC is winning, there is no sense of urgency to change anything.
"We would like to divide it up if we could," Spurrier said. "But we've been in close games all the way and our passing game hasn't been very good, for some reason. When you're trying to win the game and you're not throwing the ball around very well, you try to run it. And he's our best runner. So, he's been getting it most of the time.
"But we do need to get more guys involved. We know that. We need to spread the ball around passing, too. We did a little better job at that last week. Some of the other guys besides Alshon (Jeffery) had three or four catches. We're trying to get more guys involved. We're trying to take a little of the load off him (Lattimore), but he gets stronger in the fourth quarter and he's very healthy right now. If that's the way to win the game, that's what we have to do."
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