COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Steve Spurrier has learned a bit more about No. 24 South Carolina — and likes what he’s discovering.
The Gamecocks coach says he understands that right now his players can’t match the group that went a program record 11-2 in each of the past three seasons. But he saw a fire on the sidelines and improvement on the field in a 33-23 victory over East Carolina.
“I think we’re starting to realize what kind of team we are,” Spurrier said. “We’re going to have to scratch and get in a bunch of close games and try to find a way to win.”
That’s what took place Saturday night when the Gamecocks (1-1) withstood an early blitz by the Pirates (1-1) and gradually gained control on both sides of the ball.
East Carolina was up 13-7 and hadn’t been stopped by South Carolina midway through the second quarter. That’s when the Gamecocks’ defense dug in to force some stops, first with a three-and-out and then with Gerald Dixon Jr.’s field goal block, the Gamecocks first since 2011. South Carolina added a pair of interceptions in the second half, then clinched things with a field goal drive that ate up nearly 11 of the game’s final 12 minutes.
The result was a much-needed bounce back victory that infused the players with confidence heading into the next game with No. 6 Georgia.
“We’re not quite as talented as some of our teams in the past, that’s obvious,” Spurrier said. But “the kids hung in there and played their hearts out.”
Mike Davis finished with 101 yards rushing — his first 100-yard game since Nov. 2 against Mississippi State — and two touchdowns. Dylan Thompson threw for 266 yards and a touchdown. Along with Dixon Jr.’s blocked field goal, Sharrod Golightly and T.J. Gurley had second half interceptions to thwart an East Carolina (1-1) comeback.
The Gamecocks secured things with a dominant final drive, shaving almost 11 of the final 12 minutes off the clock through ball control thanks to an energized offensive line.
“You can’t start talking about this game without talking about the offensive line,” Thompson said.
It was a positive trend all the way around after the horror show that was last week’s 52-28 loss to Texas A&M that sent many fans looking to jump off the Gamecocks bandwagon.
Georgia enters on a high after a 45-21 victory over Clemson. Georgia runner Todd Gurley showed his speed and power with four touchdowns, including a first-half kickoff return after Clemson had taken a 21-14 lead.
South Carolina’s defense says it’s ready for the challenge.
“I feel like we made a good stride forward and got the ‘W’,” said Golightly. “But we still have a long way to go. We have a big game next week. We have to buckle up because it’s an SEC game. And it’s all on the line so we have to toughen up for next week.”
The Gamecocks were picked to win the SEC Eastern Division this summer and can regain an edge with a win against Georgia. For that to happen, South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward says the players will have to tap into the energy and spirit they did this week to recover for the Aggie defeat.
His unit lost several key performers from a year ago, including No. 1 NFL draft pick Jadeveon Clowney, and the replacements haven’t yet filled those shoes. Ward understands the Gamecocks can’t wait too long if they hope to continue their past success.
“We’re playing with a young team, but it’s no excuse,” Ward said. “We were preaching all week about playing with emotion. They were playing with a lot of enthusiasm and I thought they did that early in the game (and) I thought we got better as the game went on.”
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