South Carolina gets off the bowl skids with this victory
ORLANDO, Fla. _ The celebration began in earnest with less than one minute remaining on the Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium scoreboard. Forsaking his tradition of reserving Gatorade baths for championships, Steve Spurrier was ready to enjoy this one. He knew the dunking was coming, so he turned his back to the team and braced himself.
To Spurrier, that bath might have felt better than winning a championship, for so many reasons. First and foremost, an 11th win for the first time in South Carolina football history came with the 30-13 Capital One Bowl decision against Nebraska.
The win exorcised the demons from Spurrier's bowl history at South Carolina, ending a three-game skid of debacles. Never again can South Carolina followers question his ability to prepare and motivate a team for a bowl game.
With 21 wins, the past two teams have set another program standard for excellence. More than a few South Carolina fans never believed they would see their beloved Gamecocks win an SEC East title one year and back it up with an equally impressive season the next.
Oh, and there is one more reason for South Carolina to toot its collective horn. As soon as the bowl season concludes, these Gamecocks will be the first to be among the top 10-ranked teams in the country in the final poll.
"It's neat to win so many games this year for the Gamecock fans that have paid their dues," Spurrier said afterward. "We lost our last three (bowl games). Finally, this year they're going to be smiling driving back to Columbia or driving wherever they're going.
"They'll be smiling tonight, and I'll be smiling out there with them somewhere."
Those smiles should widen even further with recognition that the bowl win secured this season as the greatest in South Carolina history. You could make a case that the 1984 Black Magic team that finished 10-2 was better, or the 2001 club that went 9-3 and finished with an Outback Bowl win against Ohio State.
Neither of those clubs overcame the kind of adversity and showed the kind of resolve of this club. This team saw starting quarterback Stephen Garcia get dismissed from the team midway through the season, then lost star running back Marcus Lattimore in the eighth week.
It often has been said that good teams become great teams through hardship, and that happened with South Carolina.
"It wasn't like, hey, we're in trouble," Spurrier said of the setbacks. "We never were in a lot of trouble because we have a defense that can play. We've got receivers, quarterbacks. We've got ballplayers, so you keep playing the game and, fortunately, we won a bunch of close games."
Monday's win was typical of how South Carolina survived all season. Most of the style points were gained with the defense because it was not particularly pretty on offense.
South Carolina fans knew all season that this defense was among the best in the country. Nebraska found out why, particularly in the second half when the Cornhuskers were held to five first downs, 37 yards rushing and 27 passing.
On offense, quarterback Connor Shaw was efficient, completing 11 of 17 pass attempts for 230 yards and two touchdowns and running 19 times _ enough to keep Nebraska's defense honest _ for 42 yards.
The offense hit enough big plays to win, the most significant being a 51-yard heave on the final play of the first half that showed, once again, why Alshon Jeffery will be playing in the NFL next season. Jeffery leaped, snatched the ball out of the air, turned and dived for the end zone.
The touchdown gave South Carolina the lead for keeps, and not even Jeffery's ejection late in the third quarter for fighting could temper one of the most significant victories in program history.
It was momentous enough for Spurrier to promise game balls to every senior and every starter in the game. He also assured every player that he would receive a $350 ring that will glitter with the number "11."
Immediately after the game on the field, a couple of microphones were placed in the face of senior offensive lineman Kyle Nunn. He had missed the final eight games of the regular season with a severe back injury, but was determined to play in the bowl game.
Nunn stood speechless for a moment, unable to answer a question. Only later, outside the locker room, could he put his emotions into words.
"We did something that's never been done here before," Nunn said. "I love these guys that I play with. I'll remember them forever."
And smiling South Carolina fans everywhere will remember this team forever.
(c)2012 The State (Columbia, S.C.)
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