NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- In its two previous road games, South Carolina's trend had been to start fiercely and fade in the final minutes.
The 17th-ranked Gamecocks reversed that here Saturday night and, as a result, left Music City with their first SEC road win since 2008. They'd lost seven straight conference games away from home until the 21-7 victory against Vanderbilt.
"It was a good win over a tough bunch of Vandy players," USC coach
Steve Spurrier said Sunday.
The win bumped South Carolina up to 17th in both major polls. The Gamecocks (5-2, 3-2 SEC) maintained their SEC East lead, staying in front of both idle Florida (2-3) and Georgia (3-3).
Those teams play Saturday in Jacksonville, Fla. If the Bulldogs can find a way to win, it would put South Carolina in extremely good position to win the division, considering USC's win earlier in the season against Georgia and the fact it would be Florida's fourth SEC loss.
It's at least conceivable that the Gamecocks could have the East locked up before they even go to the Swamp in mid-November.
Understandably, Spurrier didn't want to get too far ahead of himself. First is a 12:20 p.m. kickoff Saturday (WMMP-TV) against Tennessee (2-5, 0-4), which stuck around for a half against Alabama before getting pummeled, 41-10. It's the Volunteers' first 0-4 start in the league in 22 seasons.
"Tennessee is a team that's played well at times, not so well at other times," Spurrier said. "They're very capable of beating just about anybody in the conference."
For the Gamecocks, the Vanderbilt box score wasn't necessarily indicative of the final score. South Carolina steadily improved over the course of the game, which was tied 7-7 at halftime. And the Gamecocks were very nearly shut out in the first half, saved only by a 51-second scoring drive that ended with a 15-yard Tori Gurley touchdown catch with 12 seconds left in the second quarter.
Gurley, the tall redshirt sophomore, was a safety net when the offense needed a charge. Including that important touchdown, Gurley finished with 13 catches -- one off the school record -- for 109 yards.
Spurrier said he awarded Gurley a gameball on Sunday.
"He caught everything he touched, I believe," Spurrier said. "Overall, yeah, he had an excellent game."
He wasn't the only one in that receiving corps.
Sophomore Alshon Jeffery had nine catches for 158 yards and a score -- a 72-yarder on a scramble play that put the game away with 6:41 to play. Freshman Ace Sanders added six catches for 57 yards.
"That was the most catches by wide receivers by any team I've ever coached," Spurrier said. "That was unusual. I told (receivers) coach Steve (Spurrier) Jr., 'You'd better take that stat sheet when you go recruit wide receivers.'"
Stephen Garcia completed 31 of 39 passes for 355 yards. Again, that's somewhat misleading. He missed several open targets in the first half and threw into traffic on several occasions.
Many of his completions to Gurley, Jeffery and Sanders were inside 5 yards, with the Gamecocks taking advantage of Vanderbilt blitzing from the edges of the field.
Still, it was a game Garcia and Spurrier were more than willing to take from the redshirt junior. To his credit, he did get better as the game went along -- the opposite of what's happened to him in many SEC road starts.
Actually, it was Garcia's first SEC road win as a starter.
"Stephen hung in there and played tough," Spurrier said.
The offense also got a jolt in the second half from senior running back Brian Maddox. With Marcus Lattimore out because of an ankle injury, sophomore Kenny Miles got the start. Miles couldn't get going, and Spurrier and running backs coach Jay Graham turned to Maddox.
Maddox, who repeatedly said he was "devastated" that he didn't get the start over Miles, ran 24 times for a career-high 146 yards and a touchdown. The 2-yard score late in the third pushed USC ahead for good.
"When Brian got his chance, he was making things happen," Spurrier said.
Spurrier said Sunday that Lattimore, who suited up and went through warm-ups but didn't play, has a good chance to play this week against Tennessee. Even with the late improvements, the Gamecocks will certainly welcome back the freshman and his 752 total yards and 12 touchdowns.
Spurrier said he was pleased with the progress made by the defense, which held Vandy to 70 total yards and three first downs in the second half. But he acknowledged that, well, the progress was made against the Commodores (2-5, 1-3).
"Our defense played about like we expected," Spurrier said. "We feel like our defense should hold these guys down. That's what occurred last night."
Third-down defense was of particular concern after the Kentucky loss, and Vandy converted just three of its 15 third-down chances - including 0 for 8 in the second half.