Sat Oct 09 06:57pm EDT
South Carolina 35, Alabama 21. Of all the ways I imagined the Gamecocks stunning mighty Alabama, they definitely did not include a) South Carolina completely shutting down the Crimson Tide's Herculean tailbacks, Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, or b) Carolina's McConaughey-ian quarterback, Stephen Garcia, delivering the game of his life in the face of the most celebrated defense in the country. The Gamecocks didn't stumble into a fluky upset on a barrage of turnovers. They beat the invincible Tide at what the Tide have always done best.
Save a bizarre decision to hurl the ball out of the end zone for a safety after a botched snap on the first play of the second half, Garcia was the exact opposite of the wild thing who can't seem to stay out of his coach's doghouse. Steve Spurrier spent the entire offseason threatening to bench his mercurial starter for a true freshman, and actually did with the game on the line at Auburn. But here, in arguably the biggest start of his career, Garcia was brilliant: 17-of-20 for 201 yards and three touchdowns. He couldn't miss in the first half (9-for-9), and converted key third downs while being pummeled in the second. It was a star-making turn from a kid who's mostly met with skepticism and scorn for the last three years.
But the other revelation was the Gamecock defensive line, longtime whipping boy of the conference's best running games. Richardson and Ingram – a duo that came in averaging 200 yards on more than seven per carry – combined for 61 yards on just 17 attempts, with a long gain of twelve. Greg McElroy was sacked seven times, one of them forcing a fumble that set up a USC touchdown to go ahead 21-3 in the second quarter. The barrier for South Carolina to the upper echelon of the SEC has always been matching up on the line of scrimmage. Today, they exceeded it.
Steve Spurrier called the breakthrough the best game his team has played in his six years there; in all likelihood, it's the best game South Carolina has ever played in 116 years. It takes a nearly perfect game to end a two-and-a-half-year regular season winning streak, and the 'Cocks got as close as they're going to get – from Garcia, from the defense, from spectacular receiver Alshon Jeffery and from true freshman tailback Marcus Lattimore, whose 95 hard-nosed yards on the ground brought him closer than any individual back to ending the Tide's 40-game run without allowing a 100-yard rusher since 2007.
It had to happen sometime: No winning streak goes on forever, and the offseason questions about the Tide's totally revamped secondary finally came to pass. Alabama still controls its own destiny in the SEC, and has enough big games in front of it to make another run at the BCS championship, with some help. Everything we know about the Tide still suggests they should be in the mix down to the wire.
South Carolina, on the other hand, is still something of a blank slate: There's no precedent for a Gamecock win of this magnitude, and no guarantee the team that showed up at its best today will show up with any consistency over the second half of the season. But they do know now, beyond any doubt, that their best is good enough to beat anyone in the SEC, and to eventually win it. That's never been the case before. This is the team Spurrier's been waiting for, and that was beginning to seem like it was never going to come. Now that he's got it, the new challenge is to make it count.