COLUMBIA — There was no joy in Steve Spurrier’s voice Saturday. His postgame mood revealed more pain than pleasure, the kind of frustration often seen in the losing team’s locker room.
Spurrier stared at the stat sheet in front of him, picking over all the negatives. They were easy to find. The Gamecocks converted only one third down in 11. They had almost half the first downs as Mississippi State. Fewer yards. Less time of possession.
“Overall, we were very sorry,” Spurrier said. “Mississippi State had a good plan. They got the best of our offense, probably, today.”
Except, Mississippi State didn’t get the best of South Carolina. Far from it.
Ten minutes earlier, the No. 14 Gamecocks had walked off the field with a 34-16 win. Before a homecoming crowd of 82,111, they made it look easy. How dominant was South Carolina’s blowout? At one point, it outscored Mississippi State 34-3. By the fourth quarter, USC’s sixth announced sellout of the season began thinning out, fans free to celebrate with no concern for the final 15 minutes.
It was the Gamecocks’ 15th straight home win, tying a program record and extending the nation’s second-longest streak, behind Michigan (19).
Yet, they were sorry. Expectations have risen at South Carolina (7-2, 5-2 SEC East). Two straight 11-win seasons will do that. Four straight wins against Clemson will do that. Beating lowly Mississippi State (4-4, 1-3 SEC West) without playing to an optimal level reveals that.
“It is a team sport and our special teams played well, and our defense played very well. Got all those turnovers that sort of set us up,” Spurrier said. “… They stopped us. Just give those guys credit. They were a little bit better in that area, but we still won the game. Sometimes, you need to win that way. We’re a pretty good team.”
With the win, the Gamecocks ensured their miraculous comeback last week at Missouri would not be wasted. They are still in the heat of the SEC East race, needing Georgia and Missouri to lose once more. They have become a perennial divisional contender after years of being stuck on the bottom.
Across the field, USC saw the team it used to be not too long ago. MSU bumbled and fumbled itself out of competitiveness, turning the ball over five times. The Gamecocks scored 20 points off those turnovers, more than enough to win the game outright on its own.
When MSU’s offense was on the field, the only thing missing was a circus-themed music.
“Turnovers were the story of the game,” MSU coach Dan Mullen said.
The Gamecocks’ defense recovered from a sloppy start. The Bulldogs marched 60 yards on their opening drive, taking an early 7-0 lead. From that moment, MSU was held to 325 yards and nine points.
USC junior spur Sharrod Golightly said it was the defense’s best game of the season. Like his boss, defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward expected more.
“I try to put my finger on why sometimes we start slow,” Ward said. “We addressed it the last couple weeks. … That’s been a focus for us. I don’t know if it’s having a lot of players, and they’re over emotional, and things get going early. When they settle down, we’re better. We’ve just got to come out, stay focused and not try to do too much early.”
The slow start wasn’t much of a surprise. All the requisites for a classic trap game hovered over South Carolina’s football team this week.
The Gamecocks had an early kickoff against an inferior opponent seven days after an emotional, historic win at Missouri. They had a bye week next. The H word was mentioned often in Columbia this week.
Hangover. Not homecoming.
It wasn’t USC’s best game, but it was easily good enough. It had everything a fan would want at homecoming. Sophomore running back Mike Davis crossed the 1,000-yard mark on the season in the third quarter. Senior quarterback Connor Shaw tied a career high with four touchdown passes.
Maybe Spurrier was caught on the negatives. His counterpart walked away impressed.
“It’s an early kickoff and it’s a sold-out game, not an empty seat in the house all the way through the fourth quarter,” Mullen said. “Their fans are making noise and cheering their team on. They’ve established and built a program here, and it’s something that we’re trying to catch up to.
“We need to have the same atmosphere as they do right here, week in and a week out, for all four quarters and create a hostile environment. It forces other teams into making mistakes, and that’s how you win at home and become a contender in the SEC.”