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September 2, 2005The first two offensive possessions of the Steve Spurrier era went exactly as South Carolina fans envisioned.
The final 50 minutes did not.
It was the fourth-largest opening night crowd in USC history.
Mitchell was impressive in the first start of his brief career, completing 18 of 23 passes for 330 yards. Most of those yards (283) came in the first half when he completed 15 of 19 passes. Mitchell was 3-for-4 for 47 yards in the second half.
"It was an unusual game but the Gamecocks won," Spurrier said. "Fortunately we made some big plays and hit some passes early. Blake really opened up super."
Syvelle Newton made the transition back to wide receiver look smooth as he had six catches for 63 yards and a touchdown before being helped from the field after taking a crushing blow on a fourth-quarter kickoff return.
Three USC players (Whiteside, Mike Davis and Kris Clark) had three receptions apiece.
Mitchell's career-best performance is even more remarkable when one considers that USC had practically no running game to speak of. USC totaled just 32 yards on 28 rushes for a paltry 1.1 yards per carry average.
"Their defensive line was tough," Spurrier said. "We couldn't budge them much. It was a tough night trying to run the ball and trying to get anything going. I thought we could knock them backwards a little bit but that was not the case. We certainly tried to run. We're certainly concerned about the running game. We'll look at the tape and figure out a way to make some yards."
Freshmen Davis and Bobby Wallace combined for just 19 yards on 16 carries as they found little running room inside. Newton finished as USC's top rusher, gaining 20 yards on a reverse on his only carry of the night. Take away that play and USC had a meager 12 yards on 27 carries.
Opportunities for Mitchell and the offense were few and far between in the second half as a pair of turnovers by USC's special teams helped UCF control the ball for 23:23 of the final 30 minutes. USC ran just 15 plays in the second half to UCF's 54 plays.
"Our defense couldn't get them off the field," Spurrier said. "But we were tough inside the 20. They were down there a whole bunch of times and came away with only 13 points. They outplayed us and they probably outhit us as far as the line of scrimmage is concerned."
UCF, which had three drives of 10 plays or more in the second half, scored 12 straight points in the fourth quarter to throw a major scare into USC.
The first score, a 12-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Steven Moffett (27-for-39, 258 yards) to Mike Walker (9 receptions) was set up when Johnathan Joseph muffed a punt, giving the Golden Knights the ball at the USC 17-yard line.
After UCF later converted good field position into a field goal, Newton's fumble on the ensuing kickoff gave the Golden Knights the ball on the USC 20-yard line.
"(Syvelle) was knocked out pretty good," Spurrier said. "He ran in there awfully hard and got hit in the head. He was moving everything but he wasn't all the way back. Hopefully he'll be okay."
But this time the USC defense held, denying UCF on a fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line.
A safety by USC punter Josh Brown with 57 seconds left accounted for the final points of the game. UCF, out of timeouts, moved inside the USC 5-yard line but the clock ran out.
After taking a 17-3 halftime lead, USC played bend-but-don't-break defense on the opening possession of the second half as UCF held the ball for 6:44 and generated four first downs. UCF seemed to have the USC defense on its heels for much of the drive but ultimately came up empty with a missed field goal from 40 yards after 13 plays.
USC wasted no time taking advantage of UCF's misfortune, racing 77 yards down the field in five plays for a 25-yard touchdown on a wide receiver screen to Newton. The touchdown gave USC a 24-3 lead with 6:35 remaining in the third quarter.
"That was certainly a crucial touchdown," Spurrier said.
Bad decisions by UCF, including a 5-yard late hit penalty and a 15-yard roughing the passer flag on Mitchell helped move the ball down the field.
When a sprint draw to Davis went awry, the fumble was recovered by UCF at the USC 37-yard line. But the defense rose up and forced the Golden Knights to punt. Johnathan Joseph, though, muffed the punt on the second play of the fourth quarter and UCF recovered at the 17-yard line.
UCF converted the turnover into a touchdown, cutting the lead to 24-10 with 12:59 left. After a UCF field goal made it 24-13, Newton's fumble on the ensuing kickoff gave UCF the ball on the 20-yard line.
UCF had first and goal from the 9-yard line. After three plays advanced the ball to the 2-yard line, UCF gambled on fourth down but saw the move backfire as Kevin Smith's dive over the top was stopped cold by a pack of USC defenders for a momentum crushing play.
"We did play in what we call the 'compete zone (red zone)," USC co-defensive coordinator John Thompson said. "The goal-line stand was real big. Our guys stepped up and competed. You have to give their quarterback credit. He played very well and threw some good balls and took advantage of some things that we did. We have to work on some communications problems."
USC later surrendered a safety with 57 seconds left, keeping it a two-possession game at 24-15.
USC came out in a no-huddle and quickly moved down the field for a touchdown on its opening possession. Mitchell's first pass was completed to Newton over the middle for a 12-yard gain. After another pass to Newton put the ball at midfield, Spurrier went for the jugular, as Mitchell hit Noah Whiteside down the middle for a 49-yard touchdown pass.
"It was a nice play to Noah," Spurrier said. "Blake threw a nice ball."
The USC defense came out in an unorthodox defense, with no linemen in the down position, a move which initially appeared to confuse UCF.
USC produced another big play on its second possession when a first-down screen pass to Mike Davis turned into a 55-yard gain to the UCF 11-yard line. After a false start penalty pushed the ball back five yards, Mitchell found Boyd alone in the left flat. Boyd caught the ball and rumbled into the end zone for the touchdown and a 14-0 USC lead with 7:17 left in the first quarter.
"I thought I was going to score but I got a little tired," Davis said. "I need to work on my conditioning. I think I played well. It was very loud."
On USC's first two possessions, Mitchell was absolutely perfect, completing all seven of his passes for 158 yards.
"I thought Blake did very well," Clark said. "He was very composed. He threw great balls, right where we needed it. He was a leader out there. We came out very strong but then we got complacent. We have a lot of improvement. I think we still have a good team."
UCF found a rhythm on its second possession, taking nine plays to move from its own 20 to the USC 18-yard line, recording first down on three consecutive plays at one point. Cody Wells sacked UCF quarterback Steven Moffett on third down to force the Golden Knights to settle for a 37-yard field goal with 3:15 left in the first quarter, cutting the lead to 14-3.
"We blitzed and blitzed them and they did a good job of picking it up," Thompson said. "Our guys did a good job of not getting frustrated. We kept brining it. The third-down conversions in the second half were very poor in their favor."
Mitchell continued to show great awareness on USC's third possession when, after failing to find an open receiver, he scrambled for 18 yards out to the 35-yard line.
"I felt good tonight," Mitchell said. "I was just excited to get out there and play. I felt like I managed the game decently. It's a lot of fun playing for (Spurrier). It's a big relief to get that first game under your belt and get a win."
After overthrowing a wide-open Travis Lee on first down for his first incompletion of the game, Mitchell connected with Clark (11 yards) and Whiteside (17 yards on wide receiver screen) to move the ball to the UCF 38.
Carlos Thomas made a fantastic catch for a 21-yard gain down to the UCF 17 on the final play of the first quarter, but USC went no further as two sacks drove USC back to the 33. Ryan Succop was wide right on a 50-yard field goal attempt, the first of his career.
USC totaled 231 yards of offense in the first quarter on 18 offensive plays, an average of 12.8 yards per play, with 207 of those yards coming through the air. Mitchell completed 10 of 11 passes in the quarter, erasing any concern about his ability to run Steve Spurrier's offense.
Following Succop's miss from long range, both offenses sputtered through the middle portion of the second quarter.
After forcing UCF to punt, USC took possession at its 8-yard line and moved 87 yards on 12 plays to the UCF 5-yard line before settling for a 22-yard field goal by Josh Brown.
It took just two plays, a 16-yard completion to Clark and a 40-yard bomb to Lee (somehow the ball got through two UCF defenders), to move the ball into UCF territory at the 36-yard line.
Antonio Heffner spelled Mitchell for five plays, three of them quarterback keepers, before Mitchell reentered the game just in time to complete an 11-yard completion over the middle to Whiteside for a first down to the UCF 10-yard line. USC gained five more yards before Brown's chip shot field made it 17-3 with 2:46 left in the second quarter.
Fred Bennett stepped in front a UCF receiver and intercepted the ball with 28 seconds left in the first half.
After seemingly moving the ball at will in the first quarter, the pace of USC's offense slowed down considerably in the second quarter as the Gamecocks generated just 76 yards of offense, 56 of those yards coming on two pass plays.
USC totaled 307 yards of offense on 36 offensive plays in the first half.
"It looked easy early," Spurrier said. "Then all of a sudden it got tough."
KEY PLAYER: Mitchell came out with laser-beam like focus, hitting 15 of his 19 first half-passes. USC never trailed after his pair of early touchdown passes to Whiteside and Boyd. Honorable mention goes to wide receiver Clark, who caught three balls and made key blocks on two of USC's touchdown plays that freed Boyd and Newton to get into the end zone.
KEY MOMENT: With USC leading 24-13 with 6:05 left after a UCF field goal, Newton fumbled the ensuing kickoff after taking a hard lick. UCF recovered at the 20-yard line and appeared poised to cut the deficit even further. But the USC defense buckled down and stopped the Golden Knights, who had first and goal at the 9-yard line.
TURNING POINT: UCF took the second-half kickoff and marched from its own 20 to the USC 23 before the Golden Knights' kicker missed a 40-yard field goal. Assisted by a couple of penalties, USC needed just five plays to drive 77 yards for a touchdown that gave the Gamecocks a 24-3 lead.
TROUBLING TREND: Both the USC offense and defense share this one. First, USC was totally unable to run the ball Thursday night, generating just 32 yards on the ground. Second, the USC defense was unable to stop UCF on third down in the second half. UCF was six for 13 on third down conversions over the final 30 minutes, which helped UCF dominate time of possession during that span.