COLUMBIA -- Saturday afternoon unfolded as most expected it would.
No. 14 South Carolina rolled past The Citadel, 41-20, at Williams-Brice Stadium, albeit after some early hiccups.
And over in Athens, Ga., No. 13 Georgia beat Kentucky, although the Bulldogs won less convincingly -- 19-10 -- than they were supposed to.
So, Georgia won the Southeastern Conference's East division, denying USC a second straight trip to the league championship game. Yet the Gamecocks are still on the doorstep of making history next Saturday against their biggest rival, Clemson (7:45 p.m., ESPN).
If the Gamecocks (9-2) want to reach 10 wins for just the second time ever by beating the Tigers, they will need to heal their defensive injuries and execute more consistently than they did Saturday. Of course, if USC does beat Clemson, nobody will remember that the Gamecocks led just 20-13 at halftime against The Citadel (4-7).
A positive sign for the Gamecocks: Their offense performed as well as it should have against a Southern Conference opponent. After the offense scored 17, 21, 14 and 14 points in the previous four games, USC gained 473 yards against the Bulldogs.
Quarterback Connor Shaw completed 16 of 18 passes for 217 yards, including touchdowns of 20, 25 and 32 yards, to atone for a bad first-quarter interception. He also ran 11 times for 90 yards, including a 60-yard touchdown run.
"Football is a team sport, and it was time the offense sort of picked up the team, and had the main part in helping us win the game," said Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier.
USC's passing offense struggled the past four games, in which Shaw threw for 81, 128, 87 and 155 yards, and had two TDs and five interceptions. The Gamecocks' best receiver, Alshon Jeffery, had no more than five catches for 24 yards in any of those games. He caught five passes for 81 yards Saturday and made a pretty, one-handed grab along the side of the end zone on the 32-yard touchdown.
"In practice all the time, as receivers, we just try to catch one-handed catches," Jeffery said. "They pick at me a lot, because they say I make a lot of one-handed catches."
Though they tease, his teammates love it. When Jeffery palmed the ball and pulled it into his chest, Shaw said he "was in awe for a second," though he added that Jeffery makes that play in practice "just about every time. He makes other guys look silly out there."
While it isn't fair to compare The Citadel and Clemson, USC needed a game in which it moved the ball efficiently -- and six touchdowns on seven possessions is certainly that -- heading into a potential shootout against the Tigers.
The Gamecocks' defense has played sensationally this season and ranked seventh nationally in yards allowed per game entering Saturday. But defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson sounded very concerned afterward as he talked about the injuries his group sustained against The Citadel.
Linebacker Reginald Bowens had a stinger, end Jadeveon Clowney suffered a mild concussion, and backup spur linebacker Damario Jeffery got a high left ankle sprain. Free safety D.J. Swearinger continues to play with a stress fracture in his right foot. Bowens' backup, Quin Smith, who has seen significant time, missed the game with a disc problem in his back. Strong safety DeVonte Holloman returned from a one-game absence due to a concussion, but left after getting sick.
"We've got some major, major problems right now," Johnson said.
Still, the Gamecocks couldn't contain their excitement about facing Clemson in one of the rivalry's most anticipated games ever.
Swearinger called it "the game of the year for us." Shaw simply described it as "huge." Johnson said he hopes "it'll be the kind of game everybody's hyping it up to be." And Alshon Jeffery, one of the best players from the state of South Carolina in recent years, said this is "the only game I look forward to during the season. I can't wait to get out there and show them what we've got."
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