COLUMBIA — Just what the team psychologists and booster club fundraisers ordered.
When in doubt, schedule a homecoming opponent that punts a lot.
South Carolina got well Saturday night — if only temporarily — with a desperately necessary 24-7 SEC victory over Vanderbilt before a nervous homecoming crowd at Williams-Brice Stadium.
Freshman quarterback Ryan Hilinski played better, even gaining 14 yards on a rare designed run. Senior wide receiver Bryan Edwards again looked like an All-American (tied a school record with 14 catches).
Best of all, the defense pitched a shutout in the second half after falling apart the previous two games against Florida and Tennessee.
Will Muschamp’s Gamecocks (4-5, 3-4 in the SEC) so needed a baseball school on the schedule after last week’s 20-point loss in Knoxville.
"We took a step forward," Edwards said. "We just have to keep going and stay positive."
This is the main reason Vanderbilt remains in the SEC, to make struggling football programs feel good about themselves — or to force schools to fire coaches.
The late Southern humorist Lewis Grizzard knew where to look for a military history analogy.
“Spain?” he said. “Spain couldn’t beat Vanderbilt.”
It’s a fact: the Commodores (2-6, 1-4) somehow upset Missouri earlier this season. But they couldn’t beat Nevada-Las Vegas, whose only other win came against Southern Utah.
And yet stagnant South Carolina needed safety R.J. Roderick (Cane Bay High School) to come through with an interception that set up a fourth-quarter Parker White (Wando High School) field goal and restart momentum.
Vanderbilt leads the SEC in Nobel Prize winners, Rhodes scholars, billionaires, ambassadors. All thanks to railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt’s 1873 vision of a great private university.
Which, of course, means the Commodores traditionally stink on the gridiron.
South Carolina might not have beaten many other Power Five conference teams Saturday night but increased a series edge over Vanderbilt to 25-4.
“There are no Vanderbilts in the NFL,” was the Steve Spurrier lament when the former Florida and South Carolina head coach was explaining his struggles with the Washington Redskins.
That’s why Bobby Johnson (Johns Island resident and former Furman head coach) and James Franklin reaching and winning bowl games while coaching at Vanderbilt are among the great SEC football achievements of this century.
Derek Mason, the present Vandy head coach, had extra hurdles in Columbia.
He went with former starter Riley Neal at quarterback because Mo Hasan, a former walk-on and third-stringer, is not yet out of concussion protocol.
Only to lose Neal to injury in the first quarter, bringing redshirt junior Deuce Wallace off the bench looking for his first college touchdown pass.
And still looking.
The Gamecocks needed all the help Vanderbilt could offer. Consider that South Carolina was playing Saturday night without three skill-position mainstays in the starting lineup on opening day: quarterback Jake Bentley, running back Rico Dowdle and wide receiver Shi Smith.
Then Saturday night tight end Nick Muse was knocked out in the first quarter.
Grasping for answers, Muschamp juggled Hilinski and Dakereon Joyner at quarterback. He got just enough out of an unlikely cast including running backs Deshaun Fenwick and Kevin Harris helping account for 205 yards rushing and wide receiver Xavier Legette catching his first touchdown pass.
And so South Carolina remains the only SEC East team Vanderbilt hasn’t defeated during this decade.
The trick now is maintaining this fresh momentum. Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, asked last week where the defending national champions needed November improvement, emphasized overall consistency over anything in particular.
“That’s what you have to prove,” Venables said. “Are you a some-timer or are an all-the-timer.”
Sometimes, the Gamecocks play well.
Sometimes, the secondary, running game, quarterback play, defensive line or special teams shine.
A banged up team of Gamecocks was good most of the time against Vanderbilt.
Linebacker T.J. Brunson's first career interception late in the game and deep into his senior year also went a long way in making the home fans happy.
"I'm just looking to capitalize on more opportunities," Brunson said.
A 4-5 record and bowl eligibility hope with games left against Appalachian State (Senior Night next week), Texas A&M (Nov. 16 in College Station) and Clemson (Nov. 30) sure beats 3-6.
Thanks to a well-timed visit from Vandy, which fulfilled its role as the SEC’s favorite homecoming foe.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff