COLUMBIA -- South Carolina defensive tackle Travian Robertson smothered Florida quarterback John Brantley at the Gators' 34-yard line Saturday afternoon, ending a historic 17-12 win for the Gamecocks. USC players rushed the field and mobbed Robertson. The student section at Williams-Brice Stadium performed the Gator Chomp gesture and mocked Florida's traditional cheer: "It's great … to be … a Florida Gator!"
Slowly joining the celebration, USC tailback Marcus Lattimore, wearing his No. 21 jersey, crutched his way onto the field. The presence of Lattimore, knocked out for the season with a knee injury in the seventh game, provided a reminder of just how much the 15th-ranked Gamecocks have overcome.
The victory, during their last Southeastern Conference regular season game of the year, improved them to 8-2 and 6-2 in the league. They had never won six SEC games. If they beat The Citadel and Clemson to end the season, they will finish with 10 wins for the second time in school history.
USC coach Steve Spurrier teared up when talking about the significance of Saturday's win with his players in the locker room afterward. He beamed and called the victory "one of the best I've ever had."
The Florida chants quickly faded in the student section, giving way to: "Let's go Auburn!" The kids knew that, for all of their team's accomplishments, it still needed help to make the SEC championship game for the second consecutive year. Spurrier planned to eat dinner with recruits after the game, tape his television show, then watch the second half of Auburn-Georgia with his family and assistant coaches.
Unfortunately for Spurrier, the game was already over by then. Georgia won, 45-7. If the Bulldogs win next week against Kentucky (4-6, 1-5 SEC), they -- and not USC -- will represent the SEC East in the conference title game.
But the Gamecocks still kept themselves technically in contention to win the East by beating Florida, thanks to what Spurrier deemed a "sensational" performance by his defense. It returned to form after getting hit for 435 yards in a 44-28 loss at Arkansas, which resulted in USC no longer controlling its fate in the East race.
Florida's offense is not as good as Arkansas,' but USC still held the Gators to 261 yards, 84 in the first half. Almost a fifth of Florida's yards came on one play -- a 47-yard run by Chris Rainey in the fourth quarter.
USC defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson was not pleased with the pressure his linemen got on Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson. They responded by sacking Brantley three times and harassing him all day. In the second quarter, Jadeveon Clowney snuck up behind tailback Jeff Demps in the backfield and knocked the ball away, leading to a 46-yard touchdown drive that put USC up 14-3.
"We feel like we work hard enough to (where) you can't hold us the whole game," said end Melvin Ingram, who had two tackles for a loss, including a sack.
Johnson was not entirely pleased with the play of free safety D.J. Swearinger, who had to fight through a sprained foot just to practice on a limited basis last week. But Swearinger made two critical third down tackles, at the USC 3 and 6. Both times, the Gators (5-5, 3-5) settled for field goals -- the first time after having first and goal at the 2, the second after first and 10 at the 13.
While USC gained just 299 yards against a defense about as strong as its own, quarterback Connor Shaw made an important throw when he needed to.
On USC's second-to-last drive, it had first down and 15 at its own 37. Spurrier saw the Gators in a coverage with just one safety deep, rather than the two they put back there most of the day. Receiver Ace Sanders was matched up with cornerback Jaylen Watkins. Earlier, Sanders told Spurrier, "Coach, I think I can run by him."
So instead of calling a curl route for Sanders in this play, as he did earlier, Spurrier opted for a take-off route. Sure enough, Sanders got past Watkins, Shaw hit him for a 46-yard pass, tying his longest of the year, and USC padded its lead to 17-12 with a field goal.
Regardless of the Auburn-Georgia result -- and the Gamecocks didn't get the one they wanted -- Spurrier valued the importance of Saturday's win for a program reaching new heights.
"We'll wait and see how the dust settles before we over-celebrate this one," Spurrier said. "But this was a big one for us."