TAMPA, Fla. — His ribs ached and his garnet jersey was grass-stained from the hit he just sustained while throwing one of the most important passes in South Carolina football history. But Dylan Thompson's ears worked just fine.
So his memory of a moment that will live forever at USC will not be the sight of Bruce Ellington catching the pass near Michigan's five-yard line, cutting back and bounding into end zone. It will be the sound Thompson heard as he lay on the ground — the sudden roar rising from USC's fans, a release from an anxious afternoon, a celebration for a program that has arrived in full force.
Whatever happens in the next 10, 20, 50 years of USC football, the Gamecocks will always have these past three seasons and Tuesday's remarkable Outback Bowl, a 33-28 victory on a blue-sky afternoon, among the most dramatic games in school history.
They will always have Thompson's 32-yard touchdown pass to Ellington with 11 seconds left, and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney's thunderous forced fumble earlier in the fourth quarter — two forever moments from two players who took distinctly different paths to them.
They will always have the sights and sounds and catches and hits that comprised the 2010, 2011 and 2012 seasons — the run to the Southeastern Conference championship game, then 11-2 records the next two seasons, more wins than in any that came before.
For Thompson, the journey from a kid who had one other scholarship offer (Division II Newberry) to USC icon took an important turn this month. He knew he might need to replace Connor Shaw in the bowl game, because Shaw's sprained left foot was easily aggravated. So Thompson imagined that every practice snap he took was happening in a game.
“I wanted to feel like it was in a game, because if it happened,” he said.
It did happen after Shaw's six-yard pass on the Gamecocks' final drive moved them to Michigan's 43. Shaw limped off. Five plays later, at the 32, Thompson saw man-to-man coverage from Michigan and had no protection other than his five linemen. He liked the matchup for Ellington, but knew a quick release was paramount. He thought about how eighth-year USC coach Steve Spurrier always tells his quarterbacks to “take our steps and throw the ball.”
Thompson flicked the pass a second before he got hit. Ellington looked up and thought “it was coming pretty slow,” he said. As the ball fell toward Ellington, he noticed a safety out of the corner of his eye. So the first thing he did after the ball landed in his hands was cut back.
The roars came quickly and they won't soon stop for Thompson, who had played sparingly earlier in the game and, in November, led USC to a win at Clemson. Shaw has been the starter since the middle of last season, but with him and Thompson returning next season, might Shaw now face a challenger to his job?
“We both looked at each other (after the game) and said we can't wait until next year,” Thompson said. “Whatever that entails, we'll see.”
Nobody in college football will hear more anticipation surrounding his 2013 season than Clowney. And nobody will be able to mention him between now and August without raving about his hit on Michigan running back Vincent Smith with 8:15 remaining Tuesday.
Like Clowney, Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan was a coveted recruit who seems destined for a successful NFL career. Lewan kept Clowney at bay Tuesday, but Clowney relished the matchup. When Lewan briefly left with cramps in the third quarter, Clowney told him, “Come on back here fast.” Clowney said Lewan responded: “I'll be back, big boy.”
Before Clowney's hit, USC defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward anticipated a pass and called a “Cali” blitz, with cornerback Victor Hampton blitzing. Instead, Michigan opted for a run, and Lewan made a pre-snap tweak of Michigan's protection, on first and 10 from its own 41.
The original zone blocking plan called for Lewan to tag-team block with tight end Mike Kwiatkowski. The new one called for Lewan and a guard to work together. But Kwiatkowski didn't hear the adjustment. When Clowney rushed to Kwiatkowski's right, Kwiatkowski thought he would have blocking help. He didn't.
Before the game, “I saw it was going to be open all day on film when I was watching,” Clowney said. “They kept on doing that little zone blocking. I said, 'I'm going to go inside and I'm going to kill them one time.'”
Clowney, untouched, plowed his shoulder into Smith's chest. Smith's helmet popped off. He dropped the ball. Clowney scooped it up while mashing Smith's head into the grass. Clowney laughed. Ward marveled at the collision, which he compared to a car wreck and called “the hardest hit I've seen in my coaching career.” Lewan pondered the consequences.
“That miscommunication, those are the plays that can lose games,” Lewan said.
USC got a 31-yard touchdown pass on the next play to go up 27-22. Though Michigan answered with a touchdown pass on the next possession, with 3:29 left, the Gamecocks had the final response — a 70-yard TD drive, iced by a throw from a quarterback who, unlike Clowney, had little name recognition when he arrived at USC.
They all know about Thompson now, and what he did — and heard — to end one of the Gamecocks' rarest games, and most treasured seasons.
“We haven't won like that since I've been here,” Spurrier said.