COLUMBIA — Tension rose from field level to the top rows of Williams-Brice Stadium, filling South Carolina’s home Saturday night.
Before halftime, the equation outside USC’s control was handled. Auburn beat Georgia in a miraculous, comeback victory four hours away, setting off a celebration among South Carolina fans in the first quarter.
Now, the Gamecocks only needed to beat Florida — a program decimated by injuries, a team they were expected to dominate — to move one step closer to the SEC championship game next month in Atlanta.
That was the tricky part.
It took longer than expected — and much more stress than anticipated along the way — but the No. 11 Gamecocks finally put the Gators away, 19-14, before a season-high sellout crowd of 83,853. Freshman kicker Elliott Fry made a career-high four field goals, including a 22-yarder that gave USC its first lead at 16-14 with 6:43 left in the game.
“I’m proud of our players. Our players played like winners,” USC coach Steve Spurrier said. “At halftime, there wasn’t a lot of laughter. There wasn’t much joy in our locker room. Then afterward, we had a happy bunch of Gamecocks.”
USC (8-2, 6-2 SEC East) closed out its conference season one game behind Missouri, which ends its SEC schedule with difficult games at Ole Miss and home against Texas A&M. If the Tigers lose one, the Gamecocks will head to Atlanta to play the SEC West champion because they own the head-to-head tiebreaker.
The night gave USC fans plenty of reason to rejoice, but there was more relief when the game ended than sheer joy. Despite playing with third-string quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg, the Gators (4-6) pulled away to a shocking 14-6 halftime lead. The Gamecocks had to play catchup the rest of the way.
It wasn’t over until senior cornerback Jimmy Legree intercepted Mornhinweg with less than two minutes left.
Florida rushed for 200 yards on 41 carries, an average of 4.9 yards per carry. Mornhinweg completed 10 of 13 passes for 107 yards, only throwing down field on third-and-long.
USC defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said he prepared for Mornhinweg to play, even though he didn’t know Gators quarterback Tyler Murphy would be inactive until the game began.
“I wish he would’ve played,” defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said of Murphy. “I say that because I think any time you play a team where all they can do is run the football, it makes it tougher.”
USC quarterback Connor Shaw completed 14 of 28 passes for 213 yards and a 32-yard touchdown to receiver Bruce Ellington. Running back Shon Carson had 13 carries for 102 yards, while sophomore Mike Davis finished with 13 carries for 54 yards.
“Florida’s defense is really good,” Shaw said. “We knew that coming in. We just couldn’t find a rhythm in the first half. We got down to the red zone, and we couldn’t punch it in. In the second half, I felt like we battled a little stronger. I thought we came in and adjusted at halftime and played pretty good in the second half. We just found a way to win.”
Not just once. In reality, the Gamecocks won twice Saturday.
Spurrier learned Auburn beat Georgia in the first quarter when the big screen inside Williams-Brice Stadium showed the final score. He said there was no mention of that game until his team returned to the locker room after its victory secure.
He expects to follow a similar plan with Missouri, paying attention from afar while focusing on Coastal Carolina and Clemson to close out the season.
“This was a wonderful win for South Carolina,” Spurrier said. “The fans were super, screaming and yelling. That made it tough on the Gators.
“Just to get a win the way it started out was good for us, good for the Gamecocks.”