COLUMBIA — Perception is everything.
Derek Mason didn’t say his Vanderbilt team was bigger, tougher and stronger than South Carolina. He didn’t warn the Gamecocks that they better wear Kevlar when they came to Nashville.
All he said, nodding toward the physical reputation of past Will Muschamp teams and how he wants his team to play, was what the game would be.
“This game’s going to be a street fight,” Mason said, referencing former MMA star Kimbo Slice. “This isn’t a sanctioned fight, this is a street fight.”
Nothing inflammatory. No momma jokes. No insults.
Just a remark made from a coach wearing a work shirt, name sewn on a patch on the breast, hoping to get his team ready for a crucial SEC matchup.
But USC didn’t take it that way. All it took was one person in charge — like, say, a coach — to present it as stepping over a line, and all of a sudden it was like Mason slapped every one of the Gamecocks. That’s why USC walked in after a 37-14 drubbing of the Commodores and shrugged.
“Every day we’ve heard it, since he said it,” running back Rico Dowdle said. “Coach said he called us out and we came and responded to it.”
“He called us out to come fight, and that’s what we did,” quarterback Jake Bentley echoed. “We’ll play in a stadium, the backyard, the street.”
Muschamp was asked if his team took it personally.
“We rushed for 273 yards,” he answered with a nod. “I think so.”
It’s the same as a winning streak. You believe you’re winning because you dog-cuss the team beforehand or wear a lucky cap, then that’s the reason for the win. You believe the opposing coach was talking down to you, you want to show him up.
No matter if it was actually meant to convey what you thought it meant. USC saw Georgia reference a guarantee from former USC receiver Tori Gurley a few weeks ago, saying they felt disrespected, which is why they played so well in a 41-17 blood-letting.
Gurley last played for USC in 2010. Everybody’s aware of how one flip comment can suddenly become a headline in age, but if the Bulldogs did receive any extra motivation from that, then trash-talking has really gone downhill.
All that said — the Gamecocks played well against Vanderbilt. They dominated the stats and shoved their game plan through the Commodores.
Kentucky, 4-0 and ranked 17th in the AP poll, will doubtless know better than to say something that can even remotely be construed as locker-room material preparing for this week’s game. But whether the Wildcats do or don’t, USC needs to keep the same attitude it had in Nashville.
That was playing mean and in control at the same time, not like when the Gamecocks were so fired up to play Clemson last year they took themselves out with several foolish penalties.
Words aren’t needed this week. Kentucky is playing very well and is confident, especially after humbling then No. 14 Mississippi State on Saturday, 28-7, and knowing it has a four-game winning streak over the Gamecocks in a once one-sided rivalry.
The Gamecocks may be scouring papers and web sites for fightin’ words, but as long as they remember what they brought to Nashville and rechannel that, they’ll be fine. Simply, this losing streak needs to end. No matter how well Kentucky is playing, the Gamecocks cannot lose this game and talk about competing for championships.
“We motivate each other every day,” USC linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams said. “Whatever they want to say, they can say it, we’re just going to come to play.”
Actions always speak louder.