LEXINGTON, Ky. — The workers at Commonwealth Stadium had barely started picking up trash in the bleachers after Saturday night’s game when the cry rose up inside South Carolina’s locker room underneath the stands, audible to only those inside.
Having scored 31 unanswered points after halftime to beat Kentucky 38-17, the sixth-ranked Gamecocks were already turning their focus toward next Saturday night’s home game against Georgia, which could make or break their season of great expectations.
Coach Steve Spurrier stood in front of his players in the locker room, and cornerback Akeem Auguste said later that he asked them a question, one whose answer they all believe they know.
“Who’s going to beat Georgia next week?” Spurrier asked his team.
“Carolina!” they said in unison.
As certain as they feel about that, they are aware that they cannot play as sloppily as they did in the first half Saturday, after which they rallied to win their ninth straight game, tying a school record from 1984.
Now, in just six days, comes a chance to break the record, separate themselves from their Southeastern Conference East Division opponents and do it in America’s most anticipated college football game this week, for which ESPN’s “College GameDay” pregame show will travel to Columbia.
Georgia, which was ranked fifth Saturday, is 5-0 and 3-0 in the Southeastern Conference, just like the Gamecocks. The Bulldogs’ offense hummed Saturday in a 51-44 win over Tennessee, while the Gamecocks struggled early against a team they were supposed to dust.
“This is exactly what we needed,” Auguste said. “We probably came in here a little nonchalant like, ‘Aw, we’re going to beat the brakes off them.’ But they came out there and put it down our throat the first half.”
Halftime brought lessons and intensity in the locker room. Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward wrote four things on the board, chief among them: “Make tackles.” Kentucky (1-4, 0-2) out-gained USC, 173-108, in the first half. It was a testament both to Kentucky true freshman Jalen Whitlow’s steadiness while replacing quarterback Maxwell Smith, who played just two snaps before leaving with an ankle injury, and to USC’s uncharacteristically shoddy defense.
“How are you going to react when you have a lot of adversity?” Ward recalled asking his players at halftime.
Senior free safety D.J. Swearinger addressed the defense at halftime and got so emotional that Auguste said, “I can’t repeat everything he said.”
In the second half, USC looked like the team that allowed 13, 10, six and 10 points in its first four games, and Marcus Lattimore looked like one of the nation’s best tailbacks. USC out-gained Kentucky, 240-78, after halftime and scored on its first three drives. Lattimore, who had five carries for 12 yards in the first half, had 18 for 112 in the second, as USC leaned on his power out of the I-formation, rather than his finesse in zone-read plays.
“I just think we knew what we had to do to win — get back to our bread and butter,” said quarterback Connor Shaw, who threw just seven times in the second half.
As they avoided one of the biggest upsets in school history, and now prepare for a challenging October that also includes trips to LSU and Florida, they think what happened in Lexington served them well. It was, in some ways, enlightening about what mistakes will mean against a better team and empowering, in how the Gamecocks saw themselves respond.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about us, man,” Auguste said. “When we play how we want to play and we play our game, there aren’t too many people that can beat us.”
Startling struggles are inevitable in any season. Good teams weather them, as USC did Saturday. Great teams avoid them altogether in big games, as the Gamecocks will try to do while definitively answering Spurrier’s locker room question about Georgia.
“You’re going to have some ups and downs through a season, and hopefully it won’t cost you a game,” Spurrier said. “Maybe we learned something about ourselves as we go forward.”
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