For USC fans who wondered all week whom head coach Steve Spurrier had chosen to catch the annual off-the-bench pass at Saturday's Garnet and Black Spring Game, watching USC women's basketball coach Dawn Staley haul in a touchdown at the end of the first half was worth the wait.
Gamecock fans speculated in the days leading up to the annual spring game at Williams-Brice Stadium which "local celebrity" Spurrier had tabbed to enter the game off the sideline for one play. Names like Darius Rucker, Patrick Davis, Mayor Steve Benjamin, USC president Harris Pastides, Marcus Lattimore and even Dale Earnhardt Jr. were tossed into the conversation, as was Staley's.
But when senior quarterback Dylan Thompson lobbed a 30-yard pass into an open corner of the end zone with 25 seconds left in the first half, it was Staley - who took over USC's basketball team in 2008 - who ran onto the field from the sideline and caught it.
The three-time Olympic gold medalist used both hands to secure the ball, then went to the ground with it before soaking up the moment with her new football teammates. The play, which Spurrier has run at his spring games since his days at Florida, gave the Black team a 21-10 lead going into halftime.
"The best play of the spring game had to be the catch by wide receiver Dawn Staley," Spurrier said, adding that he was a bit anxious about having Thompson throw the pass from so far away.
Spurrier said he hoped the Black team offense would have driven down to the 10- or 15-yard line before running the play. But with the clock winding down, Spurrier said he had to "hustle it in there" and call for Thompson to throw the ball roughly 45 yards through the air.
"That ball was in the air quite a while, you know," Spurrier said, noting that he wasn't sure Staley would be able to track it down.
"Dawn made an excellent catch," Spurrier said. "Got down with it, and of course, she was in the end zone. She knew to hit the ground with it, so it was an excellent catch."
Spurrier wasn't the only one feeling uneasy before the play.
"That was the most nervous I've ever been throwing a pass," Thompson said. "I didn't know, you know? Basketball and football - it's a different game. I was like, 'Should I throw it hard, soft, whatever?' And she was like: 'Just throw it. I got gloves on.'"
Spurrier said he called Staley Wednesday night to ask if she would be interested, and told her to make sure she didn't let the word out before the game.
"I said: 'I want you to catch the off-the-bench play. You think you can catch it?' Spurrier said. "And she said, 'Coach, I can catch the ball.'"
Spurrier said it was the first time he's ever had a woman catch the off-the-bench pass at a spring game, and speculated that it might have been the first time it's ever happened.
"Have any of y'all ever seen a female off-the-bench play?" Spurrier asked after the game to media members, who shook their heads in response. "Well by golly, we set history today, didn't we? We set history."
Spurrier said he told Staley to try to earn a celebration penalty after the catch, but the referees never called it. After the catch, USC players hoisted Staley up on their shoulders and carried her off the field.
USC running back Mike Davis said he was proud of Staley, and that she did a "terrific job" to hold on to the ball.
Thompson was just as proud, though partly for ulterior motives.
"I was happy she caught it because I would have gotten a lot of junk if she wouldn't have," Thompson said with a grin.
For Spurrier, who brought USC's women's basketball team on to the field at halftime to be recognized in front of the crowd of 36,412, it was the perfect play call.
"It was neat," Spurrier said. "She enjoyed it, and I think her players did also."
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