NASHVILLE - Steve Spurrier walked past South Carolina's Justice Cunningham, pointed at his senior tight end and exclaimed, "The play of the game right there."
Indeed it was.
Cunningham, who had 27 receptions in 40 games entering his senior season, made his only catch of the night count in a huge way as he somehow kept a firm grasp of the football while being walloped by Vanderbilt cornerback Andre Hal.
The reception was one of several decisive plays by the Gamecocks in a hard-fought 17-13 victory over pesky Vanderbilt on Thursday in front of a crowd of 38,393 at Vanderbilt Stadium.
USC extended its winning streak in season-opening games to 13, and improved its all-time record against Vanderbilt to 18-4.
Cunningham jumped up quickly after the blow, clutching the ball while the yellow flag flew past him.
Four plays later, Marcus Lattimore, who reached triple digits for the ninth time in his career (USC is 9-0 in those games), powered over from a yard out for the game-winning touchdown with 11:25 remaining.
"Probably so, but I hope for many more in the future," Cunningham said when asked if it was the biggest catch of his career. "I knew I had caught the ball. I had to hold on. I knew there was a big hit coming. That's what I worked all offseason for."
The Gamecocks, which had been 4-27 when trailing after the third quarter under Spurrier, managed to pull out a win for the seventh time in eight road outings despite producing just 272 yards of total offense, 205 on the ground.
Lattimore rushed 23 times for 110 yards and two touchdowns, while Shaw, who exited the game late in the second quarter with a bruised shoulder and returned in the middle of the third, had 92 yards on 14 rushing attempts.
Shaw and Dylan Thompson combined to compete seven-of-15 passes for 67 yards and one interception, one of the lowest single-game passing totals of Spurrier's tenure.
"We made a few plays here and there, but we didn't do much at all (offensively)," Spurrier said. "It may have been one of the worst passing nights we've ever had. It was a positive our guys didn't give up, but I hope we can play a lot better offensively next week."
USC opens the home schedule next week against East Carolina at Williams-Brice Stadium at 12:21 p.m.
After that game, Cunningham's catch dominated the conversation.
"Justice Cunningham made a huge catch and got a penalty on top of it," Spurrier said. "Marcus was able to get his second touchdown after Connor made some super runs. But the super catch by Justice Cunningham got us the seven points."
Vanderbilt coach James Franklin described Thursday's game as "our Super Bowl," but saw his record as Commodores coach fall to 6-8.
"We lost to a good football team. We had opportunities early in the game and should have been up 10-0 [early on] with momentum," Franklin said. "It could have been a completely different game. We had opportunities to put together a significant win and didn't get it done."
After managing just 1 yard in the third quarter, USC gained 115 yards in the fourth quarter. Cunningham's superb grab occurred on the third snap of the final quarter.
"It was a gutsy performance by Connor Shaw," Spurrier said. "He couldn't pass much, so we just had to run and get a touchdown or two and let our defense play. Fortunately our defense held them to 13 (points)."
The Lorenzo Ward-led defense held Vanderbilt to 276 yards of total offense, 78 coming on a second-quarter touchdown pass from Jordan Rodgers to Jordan Matthews for the Commodores' first points of the night.
Take away the Rodgers-to-Matthews connection and Vanderbilt gained 198 yards on 58 snaps. No defensive play by the Gamecocks was bigger than Shaq Wilson's first-quarter interception after the Commodores had penetrated inside the 5-yard line following USC's second turnover in two possessions.
"It was great discipline by a senior," Ward said. "We played man-to-man in the red zone because they had shown a tendency to run the football a lot down there. So we loaded the box and played man-to-man on the outside. He had man coverage and was disciplined in his responsibilities."
Vanderbilt started four possessions inside USC territory and two more at its 49- and 4- yard-lines, and came away with six points in those six possessions.
After Lattimore scored the go-ahead touchdown, Vanderbilt had two more possessions to do something offensively, but gained only 17 yards on nine snaps. The victory was secured when a fourth-down pass to Matthews fell incomplete with 1:47 left.
Ward dialed up a zero blitz on Vanderbilt's final play, but it worked out for the Gamecocks.
When Shaw suffered a bruised shoulder late in the second quarter, Thompson took over for the final two offensive plays of the half and started out as the signal-caller in the second half.
Midway through the third quarter, Vanderbilt gambled on fourth-and-inches from the USC 30, and made it with a leap over the pile. The USC defense stiffened, though, and the Commodores settled for a 44-yard field goal with 6:02 left in the third quarter to give the Commodores their first lead of the game at 13-10.
Shaw re-entered the game on USC's third possession of the third quarter, and quickly faced a key third-and-6 situation. However, a toss sweep to Lattimore didn't pick up the necessary yardage.
After Cunningham's brilliant catch set up the short touchdown run by Lattimore, Vanderbilt replied with a long kickoff return to the USC 48.
Only a touchdown-saving tackle by Damiere Byrd prevented the Commodores from regaining the lead with an explosive play. But the USC defense stood tall again and forced a three-and-out even though Vanderbilt started the drive from the USC 48.
The first half featured multiple momentum swings before ending with the score even at 10-10. Vanderbilt excited the crowd early by forcing a couple of early turnovers from the Gamecocks before USC righted the ship.
However, the second quarter was controlled by Vanderbilt, leading to a stalemate at halftime.
Vanderbilt took the opening kickoff and drove into USC territory by relying mostly on the run. However, a fourth-down pass failed and the ball turned over to the Gamecocks.
But disaster struck when Lattimore fumbled on the first offensive play for the Gamecocks, and Vanderbilt recovered at the USC 44. Back-to-back outstanding defensive plays by Clowney, though, forced a three-and-out for Vandy, a key stop for the defense.
Clowney had three tackles, two for loss and one sack, on Vanderbilt's first two possessions.
The USC offense soon committed another turnover on its third snap of the game when Shaw was picked off by Vanderbilt's Kenny Ladler at the USC 38, while looking for D.L. Moore. He returned the ball 17 yards to the USC 21 with Bruce Ellington making a potential touchdown-saving tackle.
Shaq Wilson made sure the 'Dores didn't score.
On third-and goal from the USC 14, Rodgers drifted right before turning and throwing back across the field. Wilson out-fought the Vandy receiver and picked off the ill-fated pass, racing all the way to the Vandy 49.
Moments later, Lattimore powered through the Vanderbilt defense for a vintage run, scoring from 29 yards out for the first touchdown of the season, giving USC a 7-0 lead with 4:55 left in the first quarter.
After forcing a punt, Shaw completed passes to Byrd and Ace Sanders before the Gamecocks elected to keep the ball on the ground. The strategy worked, with Shaw and Lattimore doing most of the damage.
Shaw mishandled a third-down snap from the Vandy 7, but a review upheld the call that his knee wasn't down when he retrieved the football.
Adam Yates came on and calmly booted a 20-yard field goal to push USC's lead to 10-0 with 11:44 left in the second quarter. It was his first career field goal.
But Vanderbilt responded quickly with a 78-yard touchdown reception from Rodgers to Matthews, the wide receiver Spurrier spoke about earlier this week, on a pass over the middle. Brison Williams whiffed on a tackle and Matthews went the distance.
Vanderbilt booted a 25-yard field goal on its next possession to even the score at 10 with just under seven minutes remaining in the second quarter.
Shaw exited the game due to a shoulder bruise with about three minutes left in the second quarter. Dylan Thompson took his place for a couple of snaps.
USC had 156 total offensive yards in the first half compared to 200 for Vanderbilt, 172 of those yards coming in the second quarter.
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