South Carolina and Missouri played one of the most exciting, memorable and tension-filled games in the SEC last season when the Gamecocks roared back behind quarterback Connor Shaw to even the score in regulation before prevailing in double overtime on Elliott Fry's 40-yard field goal, 27-24.
Steve Spurrier would not be surprised if the same type of close, hard-fought game unfolded between the two schools Saturday night at Williams-Brice Stadium (7 p.m., ESPN).
Both teams are 3-1, but suffered their losses at different places on the schedule. The Gamecocks, of course, rebounded from the displeasing opening game setback to Texas A&M with three straight wins, two over current Top 25 occupants Georgia (No. 12) and East Carolina (No. 23).
Last Saturday, hours before USC rallied from an early two-touchdown deficit to outlast Vanderbilt in Nashville, Missouri was stunned at home by Indiana, 31-27 on a last-minute touchdown by the Hoosiers. As a result, the Tigers will be looking to get back on track in their second visit to Williams-Brice since joining the SEC in 2012.
"They had a game last week that we almost had," Spurrier said Tuesday during his weekly press conference at William-Bride Stadium. "Sometimes when you don't play well and the other team plays very well, you can get beat. We avoided our upset with some good plays here or there by Pharoh Cooper and Dylan (Thompson) and the offense. It worked out for us last week or else we could've easily been right where they are as far as being upset. But they're a well-coached team."
USC and Missouri have also played different schedules. The Gamecocks will be halfway through their conference slate at the conclusion of Saturday's game, while Missouri is playing the first of eight straight SEC matchups.
Spurrier said emphatically USC is still seeking a higher plane of performance with Missouri coming to town.
"They're fast, they're quick," Spurrier said of Missouri. "They play hard. It should be a heck of a game. Hopefully, we can get our guys playing at a higher level. We have a lot of guys playing extremely well; we have some that don't play very well. As coaches, we need to get those guys up to speed. We still believe we have a chance to have a good team this year. We've played some pretty good teams."
The wins over Georgia and Vanderbilt catapulted USC back into the SEC East race and the Gamecocks now control their own destiny moving forward unless and until they suffer a second SEC loss. Currently, just one of USC's final eight opponents is nationally ranked (Auburn), although USC is the lone FBS school in the country to face three teams ranked in this week's AP Top 25 in the first four weeks of the season (Texas A&M, Georgia and East Carolina).
"We're still in the hunt for whatever we're in the hunt for," Spurrier said. "Obviously, we need to concern ourselves with playing the game at a lot better level than we've been playing and we'll find out if we can do it here Saturday night.
"I wish we could get our players, a large majority of them, to realize how special every game is. Maybe our effort and our concentration level would improve. Somehow or another, we had enough players with enough urgency that cared enough that we were able to come out of there (Vanderbilt) a winner."
Missouri starting quarterback Maty Mauk was 10-of-25 passing for 249 yards against USC last year in the Show Me State as the replacement for injured starter James Franklin. Now the starting job is his.
"We've got to contain him. He's a quarterback that can run all over the place," Spurrier said. "He played against us last year and had some good plays early, then we contained him pretty much in the second half. Hopefully, we can contain him and keep him in the pocket. We will have to rush some linebackers here and there and get some pass rush from the other guys also."
Dylan Thompson posted decent stats at Missouri last year (15-of-27 passing for 222 yards and one interception), but could not generate any points. So, Spurrier inserted Shaw into the game and he directed the fourth quarter comeback and the winning drive in overtime.
"He didn't struggle as bad as it appeared," Spurrier said. "Mike Davis fumbled on the two-yard line. We hit Bruce on some good passes. He had a pretty good deep ball toward Busta (Anderson) that we didn't hit. Nicky Jones caught one out of the end zone. He wasn't terrible last year, just nothing good was happening and we were shut out for three quarters."
In view of how the victory at Vanderbilt played out in front of about 35,000 fans and an SEC Network TV audience, USC's kickoff coverage unit will be heavily scrutinized and their performance against Missouri will surely be one of the most-debated post-game topics.
"We practice it a lot," Spurrier said. "Obviously, it doesn't appear we do. We've actually spent more time on special teams here in the last three or four years than I ever used to do at Florida. Now we've got a special teams coach and that's all he does. We spend 25 to 30 minutes every day on special teams. I don't know if we've got the best players out there or what it is, but we're not doing much right now. We've got an excellent coach, he's done it a long time. Maybe we need to re-look at the guys that are going down there to cover kickoffs."
USC should get offensive lineman Cody Waldrop back from an injury this week, while defensive end David Johnson is out with a sprained knee and running back Brandon Wilds is doubtful with a shoulder ailment.
-- The ESPN announcing crew for Saturday night's game is Brad Nessler (PBP), Todd Blackledge (color) and Holly Rowe (sidelines). The popular College GameDay program will televise live from the Horseshoe on Saturday morning. "It'll be wonderful for our university, our state, our city and hopefully our team will play our best game of the year here Saturday night," Spurrier said.
-- Spurrier on Cooper's role: "He's obviously pretty good back there, so we'd be a fool not to keep him back there several times every game. A couple of the catches he made were sensational. He's a good player and he's a wonderful young man. I asked him yesterday, 'We're not using you too much, are we?' and he said, 'Coach, I'll be ready.' When he gets his hands on it, he is a very good player. We need to find ways to make sure he's running with it."
-- USC is 80-40 in Spurrier's 10 seasons, so the Gamecocks have won two of three games since the start of the 2005 season. "You're judged, as a coach, on your record," Spurrier said. "That's all anybody asks: what's your record? They don't care that the other team ran back two or three kickoffs or whatever. They say, 'What is your record?'"
-- Spurrier noted USC has had six kickoffs returned for touchdowns against it in his 10 seasons, while the Gamecocks have none. "I'm not a very good kickoff coverage coach, that's for sure. Not a very good kickoff return coach because we've never returned one for a touchdown here and we've had six run back on us since I've been here. So I'm not very good at that, I'll admit it."
-- Spurrier continued to preach USC had to coach better. "Everybody always gets into coaching when the team doesn't play very well. Lorenzo Ward has been here the last two years as coordinator. We've gone 11-2. Kirk Botkin has been here, Grady Brown, Deke Adams, our offensive coaches, all of us have been here pretty much the whole time that we've been winning. Joe Robinson's been here, our special teams coach. It's not like we've got a whole bunch of new coaches that don't know how to coach all of a sudden."
-- Spurrier's response when asked about USC's pass rush: "Pass rush? What is that?"
-- Spurrier said defensive end Gerald Dixon had a great game last week at Vandy.
-- Spurrier wouldn't reveal where he voted USC in this week's Coaches poll, but added he didn't believe the Gamecocks were the No. 13 team in the country: "But that's OK if they want to vote us there. We like being as high as we can. It's good for recruiting, I guess. I've said many times the voters like us."
-- Spurrier said the secondary has not played well so far this season: "At times, we're not flying to the ball once it's in the air."
-- The 1994 Carquest Bowl team will be honored at halftime. It was the first bowl win in school history. No word on whether former head coach Brad Scott, who joined the Clemson staff shortly after being fired by USC in 1998, will participate in the festivities.
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