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September 4, 2011

Second-half surge lifts USC past ECU



CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Seventeen point deficit in the first half? No problem.

Well, maybe not. But it was certainly one impressive comeback.

South Carolina outscored East Carolina, 42-14, in the second half - 21 of those points came during a wild two-minute stretch early in the third quarter - and rallied from an early double-digit hole to defeat the pesky Pirates, 56-37, in a sometimes wacky and entertaining game Saturday night at Bank of America Stadium.

"It was a good win for us in that we didn't play very well early," said USC head coach Steve Spurrier, who is now a perfect 42-0 in his career against non-BCS schools, including a 16-0 mark since 2005 when he took over the Gamecock program.

"We fumbled it all over the ballpark in the first half, but we regrouped and they fumbled it back to us at the start of the third quarter and we were able to capitalize and score a bunch of touchdowns. That pretty much turned it around."

In the process, the answer to the question of who indeed was South Carolina's starting quarterback heading into the pivotal SEC clash at Georgia next Saturday was answered.

USC scored all 56 of their points when fifth-year Stephen Garcia quarterbacked the Gamecocks. Garcia, who had his 28-game consecutive start streak snapped, completed seven of 15 passes for 110 yards and rushed for two touchdowns, including a 32-yard gallop midway through the second quarter that ignited the Gamecocks' comeback.

"I was just playing the way I know how to play," Garcia said. "Overall I thought I played decent. There were a few plays I wish I could have back. But we did enough to win the game."

Afterwards, Spurrier confirmed Garcia would start the SEC opener at Georgia, which kicks off Sept. 10 at 4:30 p.m. (ESPN2) from Sanford Stadium. The Bulldogs fell to Boise State, 35-21, Saturday night at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

"We need to tighten up and play a lot better next week," Spurrier said. "Overall, it was a pretty good opening game and nobody got hurt seriously. Hopefully, we can improve from the first game to the second game and get ready for the Bulldogs next week."

Yet, because he started, Connor Shaw is credited with the victory, making him 1-0 in his career. Shaw was 3-of-9 passing for 21 yards in the first quarter.

"It wasn't as good as I hoped, but this is how you get better," Shaw said. "It was game time experience and I'm thankful for the opportunity. Whenever I'm called on, I'll be ready to go. Obviously, Stephen is our guy. You could tell when he went in that momentum switched over. He's fifth year guy. The guys rally around him. I rally around him."

South Carolina extended their season opening-game winning streak to 13 games. The Gamecocks' last loss in a season-opening game came in 1999 during Lou Holtz's initial season as head coach.

The two teams combined for nine turnovers - eight fumbles and one interception - in the mistake filled game.

Marcus Lattimore rushed for 112 yards and three touchdowns on 23 carries to reach the century mark for the fifth time in his career. Lattimore had 72 rushing yards in the second half and USC finished with 220 yards on the ground.

"We played well in the second half," Lattimore said. "But I still have some yards out there I should have gotten. The offensive line did a great job. I missed a couple of reads myself. I have to go back and watch some film."

Jadeveon Clowney had seven tackles in his USC debut and one pass breakup. Antonio Allen finished with a career high 16 tackles, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and one pass breakup.

USC limited ECU to 85 net yards rushing.

"We knew we had to pursue the ball and catch them on the back side of screens," Clowney said. "We were just running to the ball sideline to sideline. I'm ready for my first SEC game."

Clowney nearly had an interception when he batted down a pass by the ECU quarterback. But before he could grab it, the QB swatted it away.

"I was trying to run without the ball," Clowney said. "I thought I was going to get it and take off. That was the plan."

Allen made the defensive play of the game with less than 11 minutes remaining in the third quarter when he ripped the ball from the grasp of ECU running back Michael Dobson and returned it 25 yards for a touchdown to push USC into a 35-24 lead.

The sensational play helped turn a 24-14 halftime deficit into a 35-34 advantage for USC before the third quarter game clock read 10:00.

The Gamecocks put an exclamation point on the first victory of the 2011 midway through the fourth quarter when a Melvin Ingram interception led to a short TD plunge by Lattimore and Ace Sanders brought the 30,000 or so Gamecock fans to their happy feet with a 68-yard punt return, the first kick return of any kind for a score by USC since 2003.

The 56-point total represents the second highest point total for USC since Steve Spurrier became head coach and is the most points scored by the Gamecocks since they put 69 on the scoreboard against Troy on Nov. 20, 2010.

Circumstances weren't as bright in the first half when ECU stunned the Gamecocks with 17 straight points within a span of 8-1/2 minutes, scoring 14 points off turnovers.

But USC surged for 14 points before halftime and headed into the locker room behind 24-14. The marching bands from both schools, though, had barely gotten off the field when thunder struck.

Moments into the third quarter, the USC defense came up with the turnover they were looking for, ripping the ball from ECU wide receiver Lance Lewis and recovering at 35. The turnover was the sixth of the game by both teams.

Garcia connected with Jeffery on a 25-yard deep out down to the 9-yard line. Bruce Ellington ran the Wildcat for two plays before Garcia rolled right and hit Ace Sanders for a three-yard TD pass with 12:32 left in the third quarter.

The defense rattled ECU quarterback Dominique Davis into ECU's second fumble in the opening four minutes of the third quarter. This time, USC recovered at the 10-yard line.

It took just two plays for USC to take their first lead of the night (28-24) when Garcia scampered up the middle for his second rushing touchdown of the night.

But it took just 11 seconds for the Gamecocks to expand the lead to 11. Antonio Allen ripped the ball away from a ECU ball carrier and raced 25 yards for his second career touchdown. The bizarre play (You could almost hear Keith Jackson screaming, "He takes the ball away from him. He's got the ball!") gave USC a 35-24 lead.

But Davis engineered a nine-play 80-yard drive for a touchdown to make it 35-31, but that was as close as the Pirates would get. The drive was highlighted by a long completion to Lance Lewis on a high fade pass, the second such play of the night for the Pirates.

The Gamecocks responded with a efficient 10-play, 59-yard drive in which Lattimore did most of the heavy lifting. The sophomore from Greer, SC powered over from the 1-yard line to give USC a 42-31 lead. Lattimore carried seven times for 38 yards on the scoring possession and had accumulated 80 yards on 18 rushing attempts by the end of the drive.

Three years ago, Garcia came off the bench at Kentucky to lead a stirring second-half comeback victory.

Saturday night, he came off the bench again. But this time, it was much earlier in the contest. But the results were the same.

Renewed energy for the Gamecocks.

Garcia led a pair of scoring drives on his first two series in relief of starter Connor Shaw, but his performance wasn't enough to offset four costly turnovers (all fumbles) as the Gamecocks trailed, 24-14, at halftime.

With USC trailing, 17-0, Garcia raced 32 yards for a touchdown to cut the deficit to 10 points. It was his longest run from scrimmage in his career at South Carolina. His previous long run was 25 yards on March 11, 2008 vs. Kentucky. Garcia also tied his career high with two rushing touchdowns.

On USC's next possession, Marcus Lattimore bulled over for a touchdown from four yards out to make it 17-14.

However, a key fumble by Stephon Gilmore on a punt gave ECU a late opportunity to score and the Pirates took advantage with an 8-yard TD pass with three seconds remaining.

"We yelled for a minute and then we calmed down and said hey this may be good for us to be behind at halftime," Spurrier said. "Our history has not been very good in coming from behind. We need to come from behind and win some ballgames. We just settled down a bit and said there was a lot of ball left.""

Garcia was 3-of-7 for 47 yards in the first half. Shaw was 2-for-8 for 18 yards. Shaw's fumble in the red zone on USC's opening drive killed their momentum as the Pirates dominated the game until Garcia's entrance with 9:45 left in the second quarter.

USC outgained ECU, 175-165, in the opening half but the four fumbles by the Gamecocks were the difference between leading and trailing at the break.

Even the usually sure-handed Lattimore fumbled on the third play of USC's third possession, giving ECU the ball at the USC 43. The Pirates drove the distance in five plays for the game's first TD.

They added 10 more points, dominating time of possession, before Garcia righted the ship and got USC back into it.

Shaw passed his first big test on USC's opening possession when he rifled a throw over the middle to Jeffery for an 11-yard gain on 3rd-and-9 from the ECU 30.

However, two plays later, Shaw scrambled out of the pocket and coughed up the football around the 10-yard line. ECU recovered, denying the Gamecocks points despite a 14-play, 50-yard drive that generated four first downs.

Lattimore rushed four times for 21 yards during the drive.

USC's difficulties continued when Bruce Ellington's ensuing 55-yard kickoff return was wiped by a block in the back penalty on Quin Smith.

ECU forced a three-and-out and took over near midfield. A 52-yard drive ended when Davis flipped a high fade pass into the left corner of the end zone and talented wide receiver Lance Lewis leaped over Stephon Gilmore, who never turned to see the ball.

The TD pass gave ECU a 14-0 lead with 14:11 left in the second quarter.

But USC continued to shoot themselves in the foot when Kenny Miles fumbled on the kickoff return, giving ECU the ball at the USC 32.

The Pirates chewed up almost 4-1/2 minutes and drove 25 yards on nine plays before settling for a field goal that gave ECU a 17-0 lead with 9:45 left in the second quarter.

After a long stretch in which the USC offense had to watch from the sidelines, Garcia made his much-anticipated season debut with 9:43 left in the second quarter.

USC's fortunes turned around after that, which is why Garcia will take USC's first offensive snap next Saturday against Georgia.

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