ORLANDO, Fla. – He stood on the podium, soaked almost from head to toe in Gatorade, and looked at the bleachers, full of garnet and black. The thousands of fans who had just watched South Carolina beat Nebraska 30-13 in the Capital One Bowl aimed their cameras toward him, trying to capture the architect of this historic season, here in the twilight of his career.
And as Steve Spurrier stood there – surveying the scene, holding the microphone he had taken, in his exuberance, from the ESPN reporter’s hands – he talked about how he has won plenty of important games in his career, and considered just where USC’s first ever 11-win season ranks.
“This is about as big as it gets for me,” he said, with that sly, sideways grin. “I love it.”
He was rolling now, sounding as bold as ever, three months shy of his 67th birthday, having brought the Gamecocks to the program’s peak in his seventh season. The band played, and he tried to interrupt. The interview was finished, but he wanted to say just one more thing.
“We’re gonna have the alma mater, then all the Gamecocks can come down on the field and give a player a hug,” he shouted.
Whether this was even possible mattered little, because this moment belonged to Spurrier and his team. Most of the fans didn’t scurry onto the field, for whatever reason, but many stayed, not wanting to miss something none of them had ever seen. Senior defensive end Melvin Ingram called it “a dream come true,” then climbed stairs to the stands and embraced fans. School president Harris Pastides waved a garnet cloth, leading chants of “Game! Cocks!”
The debate can now begin about where 2011 rates compared to 1984 and 1987 in USC football history. Spurrier weighed in immediately: “The record speaks for itself as the best team ever.”
What’s clear is that an 11-2 record means the 10th-ranked Gamecocks will best the 10-win 1984 team’s No. 11 final ranking. What’s also obvious is that the moments that created the 11th win will live forever at USC: Alshon Jeffery’s “Hail Mary” touchdown catch, free safety D.J. Swearinger snuffing out a Nebraska scoring chance by popping the ball loose, Connor Shaw finding Ace Sanders for a critical third-down completion after Jeffery was ejected. The game was different than most: a 6-2 start after USC blocked an extra point and returned it for two points, then Jeffery’s ejection with 2:11 left in the third quarter after a confrontation with cornerback Alfonzo Dennard. But, really, for the Gamecocks, it ended up unfolding as most of their season has, with what Spurrier called a “sensational” effort from his defense.
The 21st-ranked Cornhuskers (9-4) scored touchdowns on their first two drives. On their fourth, they reached USC’s 7-yard line before Swearinger launched himself at running back Ameer Abdullah and forced a fumble. On Nebraska’s fifth drive, it got to USC’s 35, before cornerback Stephon Gilmore’s interception started a USC possession that ended with the 51-yard answered prayer to Jeffery – and a 16-13 lead – as time expired in the first half.
At halftime, USC’s defensive coaches wrote the stats for Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead on the locker room board: 71 yards, 4.7 per carry. Lorenzo Ward, debuting as USC’s defensive coordinator, urged his players to stop Burkhead. They responded by limiting Burkhead to 18 yards and 2.3 per carry in the second half. The Cornhuskers gained 189 yards in the first half, 64 in the second. They failed to crack USC territory on their final four drives.
The Gamecocks’ defense carried them for much of this season, as the offense struggled early, even at full strength; quarterback Stephen Garcia was kicked off the team; and running back Marcus Lattimore suffered a season-ending knee injury.
And while the defense dominated late Monday with Jeffery out, it was Shaw-to-Sanders on third down and 18 at Nebraska’s 34 that sealed the win – a 23-yard dart over the middle, on the fourth quarter’s first drive. Two plays later, USC scored a touchdown and went up 23-13.
On the field after the game, the Gamecocks pulled on their commemorative hats. Lattimore, seeing Sanders without one, handed him his and said, “You can wear my hat.”
Something bolder and brighter is on the way as well – rings, commissioned by Spurrier, to honor a season unlike any before it.
“It will have a big ol’ 11 on them,” he said.