After watching his team struggle to put away an FCS opponent, Steve Spurrier knows South Carolina needs to get better fast to knock off Auburn.
The 17th-ranked Tigers are no strangers to living on the edge.
The latest of Auburn’s down-to-the-wire victories required overtime, and another tight contest could be in store Saturday night at Jordan-Hare Stadium as the 12th-ranked Gamecocks seek a rare win over the Tigers.
South Carolina (3-0, 1-0 SEC) entered the AP Poll at No. 24 after a season-opening victory over Southern Mississippi, but it was a 17-6 win over then-No. 22 Georgia nine days later that really put it on the national radar.
Freshman tailback Marcus Lattimore had 182 yards rushing in that game to vault the Gamecocks up 11 spots in the Top 25, and one of the country’s top recruits had Spurrier’s club looking like an instant SEC contender.
After a less-than-inspiring performance Saturday, the coach himself isn’t so sure. It took Stephon Gilmore’s 80-yard, fourth-quarter interception return to put away pesky Furman 38-19, a game the featured two interceptions from quarterback Stephen Garcia and an average day on the ground (19 carries, 97 yards) from Lattimore.
“They probably outplayed us, outhit us, probably out-toughed us a little bit,” Spurrier said.
“We were a little careless at times. But maybe it was just one game. Maybe we can get in a game with Auburn and play as smart as we can.”
While that margin was a bit too close for comfort against an FCS opponent, the Tigers (3-0, 1-0) were playing a far more competitive contest against the Gamecocks’ bitter in-state rivals.
Auburn had to hold off a late Mississippi State rally to win 17-14 in its conference opener Sept. 9, then needed overtime to survive Clemson on Saturday. Down 17-3 at halftime, Gene Chizik’s team battled back with 21 third-quarter points and won 27-24 on the strength of Wes Byrum’s 39-yard field goal.
The Tigers have won three of their last four games by a field goal dating to a wild overtime victory over Northwestern in the Outback Bowl.
“We just want to make it exciting, that’s for sure,” Chizik said. “Like I told them in the locker room, we had two overtime games in the last four games as a football team. We’ve been very blessed to come out on top with both of them.”
Not all the news was good on Auburn’s sideline. Right tackle A.J. Greene went down with an apparent season-ending ankle injury, and top tailback Mario Fannin was already out with a shoulder injury.
Like Lattimore in Columbia, though, the Tigers have a freshman runner who’s burst onto the scene. Michael Dyer had 16 carries against Clemson and has averaged 5.4 yards per carry through three games, numbers that have Chizik’s faith in the freshman growing.
“We’ve weaned Michael into the system some,” Chizik said. (The Clemson game) was the first time where we really felt where he was going to be able to carry the load, and he did that.”
Finding holes to run is easier with an offense that leads the nation in pass efficiency. The Tigers average FBS-highs in yards per attempt (11.8) and touchdown percentage (13.73) with dual-threat quarterback Cameron Newton.
Running won’t be easy, though, against a South Carolina defense that limits opponents to 2.2 yards per carry.
Even if the Gamecocks can stuff Newton and Dyer, they’ll have to overcome some rough history against Auburn. South Carolina has lost four straight since last beating the Tigers in 1933 - its only win in eight games in the series.
Garcia’s road resume doesn’t seem to be a good indicator that streak will end. The Gamecocks are 2-7 in games the junior starts outside of Williams-Brice Stadium, as he’s thrown five touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
South Carolina has lost five straight conference road games by an average of 20.6 points, but Lattimore might make a difference. The Gamecocks have been held under 70 rushing yards per game in those losses.