OXFORD, Miss. — After the final seconds ticked off the stadium clock here at Ole Miss, coach Steve Spurrier walked off the field, looked up into the stands at a clutch of jubilant USC fans and said, "It's good to see them happy."

Indeed, this 31-24 victory over the Rebels was just what the Gamecocks needed to keep this season from spinning out of control. Because there is a vast difference from being 4-2 midway through the schedule and being 3-3.

Especially when the victory comes on the road, against a conference foe, and at a time when the fans and media, and perhaps even you, were beginning to doubt, deep down, if this thing was ever going to work.

This time it did. The offense clicked, the defense contributed a touchdown and the Gamecocks didn't do anything stupid to give it away.

And the timing couldn't have been better.

Because, for those keeping score at home, it has been exactly a year since South Carolina won a Southeastern Conference game.

Headlines like that can be damaging.

Headlines like this can be salvaging.

Tryouts are over

Granted, there is a whole lot of football left for this Gamecock club to play this year. The road ahead is uphill, mined and dangerous.

USC fans have not forgotten last year's 6-1 start, the heady top 10 ranking and the feeling of euphoria that came with thinking they had finally turned the corner.

More importantly, they haven't

forgotten the stinging disappointment that followed when the Gamecocks lost five straight games to finish the season, not only out of any poll consideration, but out of the bowl picture as well.

But for this team to come into Vaught-Hemingway Stadium as the underdog, on homecoming, only a week after Ole Miss upset nationally ranked Florida in the Swamp, and win when it really mattered, is something USC fans should savor.

"It was a good team victory," Spurrier said. "We only punted once (a 9-yard shank); we put together a 96-yard touchdown drive when we needed it; the defense didn't play as good as most days, but good enough; and Chris Smelley is our starter, it's as simple as that. The tryouts are over."

All of those things were important milestones for Spurrier's team, that in his fourth season in Columbia hasn't exactly been an example of positive progress lately.

On most outings, the offense has found inventive ways of shooting itself in the foot and stalling drives.

At quarterback, it's been a merry-go-round between season starter Tommy Beecher, an up-and-down Smelley and the unknown quantity known as Stephen Garcia.

While fans have been calling for Garcia to play more than a few snaps a game, Spurrier has been reluctant to throw the promising freshman to the wolves.

For good reason.

A solid game by Smelley saved him from that inevitability.

Young and coachable

But this game was a key moment in the careers of some young players like Jason Barnes, a freshman receiver from Charlotte, who stepped up with seven catches for 76 yards and two touchdowns.

"People ask why he hasn't played more," Spurrier said. "Well, he's just coming around. The coaching is finally kicking in for some of these players."

It's also notable that veteran receiver Kenny McKinley (4 catches, 58 yards) returned to the lineup after being out with a leg injury.

And that cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who sat out the first series for academic misdemeanors, shored up the defense when he returned to the field.

Add all these little things up and it means the Gamecocks are in much better shape than previously predicted.

And there's one other young player who deserves a game ball for this win at Ole Miss. Spurrier said his son, Steve Spurrier Jr., called the plays for "almost the entire game."

Whether that's just a father giving his son a public pat on the back or a sign that things are finally starting to click into place for USC's offense is debatable.

Would he have said that if they had lost this game? Probably not.

But it sure gives all those Gamecocks fans something to cheer about.

At least for a day.

Reach Ken Burger at kburger@postandcourier.com or (843) 937-5598.