COLUMBIA -- That's right -- South Carolina's special teams made a play, and what's more, it was one of the biggest of the year.
Down 21-17 in the third quarter of Saturday's Homecoming matchup with Mississippi State, Eric Norwood blocked a punt and helped turn the tide of what was shaping up to be a sour afternoon. The No. 16 Gamecocks scored the go-ahead touchdown on the very next play and never looked back, winning 38-21 and finding out their maligned defense and special teams could handle adversity, after all.
"OK, we can say special teams can help win a game around here," coach Steve Spurrier said. "We were getting concerned a little bit there for a while."
Granted, it wasn't against the best of competition, and Saturday's performance won't mean anything when No. 14 Kentucky visits in five days.
But USC (4-1, 2-1 SEC) could be feeling a lot worse, considering how Saturday began.
Mississippi State (3-2, 1-2) erased a 17-14 USC lead in the third quarter and the Gamecocks' Ryan Succop had just shanked a 50-yard field goal. With Williams-Brice Stadium beginning to resemble a tomb, USC's defense took the field and managed to slow the Bulldogs' two-headed tailback system of Anthony Dixon and Christian Ducre.
With Blake McAdams jogging on to punt, special teams coach Shane Beamer signaled for the same lineup. He'd seen McAdams was slow to get the ball off and thought the Gamecocks had a decent chance to block it.
Norwood shot through a hole and swatted the ball away, Ranzino Valentine chasing down the ricochet and falling on it for a USC possession at the Bulldogs' 27-yard line. Spurrier immediately signaled for a put-them-away play and quarterback Chris Smelley delivered, firing a midfield strike to Kenny McKinley, who bounced off a tackler and strutted into the end zone.
With a three-point lead and renewed confidence, safety Chris Hampton helped force another punt when he drilled quarterback Josh Riddell and caused an errant throw. USC only needed five plays to march 79 yards, McKinley taking a slant and galloping 48 yards, before Mike Davis notched the second of his three touchdowns.
The Gamecocks cruised to the finish and got ready for the Wildcats, glad to have something good to talk about for once.
"We're still not playing to the best of what we can play to," said McKinley, who finished with four catches for 107 yards and two TDs, "but I think we'll be there by the next game."
The Gamecocks were already limping coming in, defensive captain Jasper Brinkley gone for the season with a knee injury, several others nursing injuries and the basically untested Smelley taking over at QB. It only took one play to get much worse -- tailback Cory Boyd charged into the line on the game's initial snap, got his spikes caught in the turf and went down hard, holding his right knee.
Their offensive sparkplug howling and clutching his knee, relegated to the sideline for at least a few plays, the Gamecocks began looking around the huddle. Smelley regrouped the team behind Davis and short tosses to Jared Cook and Freddie Brown, scoring a touchdown in the first quarter.
MSU charged right back and evened the score, and the two teams traded touchdowns in the second quarter before Succop hit a 45-yard field goal at the end of the half. Boyd returned -- the diagnosis is a sprained knee, but he is probable for Kentucky -- but his knee was swelling and he didn't have his usual explosiveness.
The Bulldogs began to reverse what was a good rushing defensive effort, blasting Dixon and Ducre past USC's defenders to set up their third touchdown. There was no need to challenge the Gamecocks' No. 2-nationwide pass defense since the run was working so well, but after USC shorted another possession -- Hampton again, jamming Ducre on a screen pass -- the punt was set up.
Norwood blocked, Valentine recovered, Smelley threw and McKinley caught. The Gamecocks kept up the strong defense, getting a fourth-and-one sack from Emanuel Cook and a tipped pass intercepted by Darian Stewart, and added two more touchdowns before calling it an afternoon.
Mississippi St. 7 7 7 0 -- 21
South Carolina 7 10 7 14 -- 38