COLUMBIA - Kenny Football?
It certainly looked that way Thursday night, as untested Texas A&M quarterback Kenny Hill gave South Carolina fits in the first half at Williams-Brice Stadium. The sophomore successor to Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel burned the ninth-ranked Gamecocks for 299 yards and two touchdowns over the first two quarters, and put the Aggies ahead 31-14 at the break.
Hill, who had attempted just 22 passes at the collegiate level before Thursday, flourished in a short-passing scheme that thwarted the Gamecocks' defensive pressure. He set up A&M's first score with a 23-yard strike to Ricky Seals-Jones, later added a 2-yard TD to Jones, and then hit a slanting Edward Pope on a 14-yard scoring strike. Right before the half, he marched the 21st-ranked Aggies downfield and cashed in with a 3-yard option pitch to Tra Carson.
South Carolina stayed in the game early thanks to the big play. Dylan Thompson, succeeding Connor Shaw as the Gamecocks' starting quarterback, connected with Nick Jones on a 69-yard bomb to get USC on the board, and later added a 46-yard strike to Damiere Byrd. But the Gamecocks couldn't slow Texas A&M, which rolled up 394 yards of total offense in the first half as compared to 216 for USC, and placed South Carolina's 18-game home winning streak in serious jeopardy.
Thursday was one of those steamy and blue-sky summer days in the state capital, as South Carolina and Texas A&M prepared to meet for the first time ever on the football field. But judging from the events of the previous evening, when USC students crashed the Aggies' longstanding tradition of midnight yell practice, you'd think these two schools had been clashing for decades.
As it was, the occasionally testy scene on the north steps of the state house certainly fueled things between the two fan bases. Texas A&M has been holding midnight yell practice since the 1900s, and for road games Aggie fans typically congregate in a public area - like state house grounds, as they did in Austin for games at rival Texas. But this time around a group of Gamecock fans - the vast majority of them students - took umbrage, physically interrupting the proceedings until police intervened and demanded the USC faithful clear the state house steps.
While things never got violent, a few profane chants on the part of the Gamecock students certainly stoked tensions, and were enough to make any Palmetto State native feel a touch embarrassed. In the end, it only added more heat to one of the tougher home openers that South Carolina - winners of 18 consecutive games at Williams-Brice Stadium -- has faced in some time.
"It should be a game that goes down to the wire, one of those when somebody makes a play in the fourth quarter," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said earlier in the week. "Hopefully, we're in position to do that."
It's not like the opener needed any more hype, given that it involved a tradition-laden and nationally-ranked foe coming to Columbia. Adding to the atmosphere was the presence of SEC Network, which made the 6 p.m. contest its inaugural game broadcast, and even set up its "SEC Nation" set right across the street in Gamecock Park, with Williams-Brice hulking in the background.
"This is one of the great atmospheres in college football," host Joe Tessitore said. "From about 5:55 to 6:05 (tonight), there's no place you'd rather be, with this place rocking with 'Sandstorm' and 'Space Odyssey.'"
Analyst Tim Tebow, a former Heisman Trophy winner at Florida, brought back fond memories of playing at South Carolina. With good reason - he went 2-0 here, including a 51-31 romp in 2007.
"I loved it. It was one of my favorite places to play," he said. "I have a lot of great memories of playing here as well, so it's a special place. I definitely think they have home-field advantage. I think LSU is the hardest place to play in the SEC, that and the Swamp - I'm obviously partial - but this place, it's really close. It gets really crazy. That 'Space Odyssey,' it got me hyped when we played here."
There will be plenty of hyped folks on both sides at kickoff, with many of them remembering the shenanigans of the previous evening. But, that's the SEC for you. One Aggies fan said the difference between playing in the SEC and the Big 12 was "like kissing Farrah Faucett and kissing your sister," an analogy any red-blooded American male of a certain age can appreciate. And all that passion was on display Thursday, in a rivalry born on the state house steps.
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