TAMPA, Fla. — Per quirky Outback Bowl trend, backup quarterback Dylan Thompson threw the game-winning touchdown pass. It went to Bruce Ellington, who led the Gamecocks in receptions this season but hadn't caught a thing before the final drive in a 33-28 victory.
But for a stretch of the fourth quarter Tuesday, Ellington's former Berkeley County high school rival owned the game-winning play: Michigan senior defensive tackle Quinton Washington blocked an Adam Yates field-goal attempt to preserve the Wolverines' 22-21 lead.
Washington, a junior who played at Timberland High School, hurried off the Raymond James Stadium field with his heartbroken Michigan teammates after the game.
Ellington, a Berkeley High School graduate, excused himself from celebrating with fellow South Carolina players and chased Washington down.
“That's my boy,” Ellington said.
They hugged, wished each other well, and went separate ways.
The No. 11 Gamecocks squeezed the most from their talented roster over a long day against No. 19 Michigan.
They won with only one yard rushing from running backs.
Jadeveon Clowney didn't get a sack.
Michigan knocked quarterback Connor Shaw out of the game as South Carolina was trying to rally in the final minute.
And with 11 seconds remaining, Ellington suddenly was on the happy sideline and Washington was instantly glum.
Thompson's 32-yard touchdown pass fluttered down the middle of the field so beautifully, Ellington said, it was “like slow motion.”
“I was happy that Ace (Sanders) had a heck of a game, he was catching everything,” said Ellington, a sophomore. “I was just patient, waiting for the ball to come to me.”
Berkeley County pals
More strangeness: Ellington is well known as a skilled kick returner, but the 6-4, 300-pound Washington made the big play on special teams.
“I have to credit (defensive tackle) Will Campbell for that,” Washington said of the blocked kick. “We came up to the line of scrimmage and Will said we should try to double-team a guy. Big Will is a senior, so I listened to him.”
Washington broke up the middle and Yates' effort was low enough for a thud.
Washington knew from Friday night games that Ellington was capable of shaking up the scoreboard.
“Berkeley was our big rival,” Washington said. “I remember very well Bruce always ran all over us and gave us a hard time.
“I thought he might do something (in the Outback Bowl) because he's a really good player.”
'Heart' and heartache
It was a fine line between success and frustration the whole sunny day.
Michigan head coach Brady Hoke liked the early vibe in his “NASCAR” no-huddle offense, but the Wolverines trailed at halftime, 21-13.
The Gamecocks came out demonstrative and jabbering on defense, but seemed to wear down — by Michigan design.
“We tried to keep their defense on the field and get them tired,” Hoke said.
“We played pretty good defense when their offense was on the field.”
The fine line cut across Berkeley County.
“We didn't win some of the games we should have won this season,” Washington said, “but, overall, it went pretty well. We came prepared for this game.”
South Carolina needed contributions from two quarterbacks; head coach Steve Spurrier gave game balls to both Shaw and Thompson.
Mike Davis had 43 yards on 12 carries in the Clemson win but didn't get an Outback Bowl carry.
Some of the Gamecocks' best players were very quiet.
But a top-10 finish is guaranteed.
“We showed a lot of heart,” Ellington said. “We showed we could come through adversity but still come through with a win.”
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff.