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January 11, 2011

COMMENTARY: Top 10 of '10

"That's the next thing on my list."
---------------------------- TOBY KEITH

South Carolina got the last stamp on its 2010 season on Tuesday when the Gamecocks were ranked No. 22 in each of the two major college football polls. No doubt, it was quite a year in Columbia, USC accomplishing several firsts on its way to a 9-5 SEC East championship season.

After weeding through the game boxes, my notes and the other highlights of the season, I think I have them collected. Feel free to disagree or add your own recollections, but for me, here's what stood out. These were plays that helped win, plays that were turning points or just plays that made us all drop our pencils and say, "Oh my ... "

SOUTH CAROLINA'S TOP 10 OF '10

10. HEAD BALL COACH
Trying to rally from a first-half hole, Stephen Garcia led the Gamecocks to a first-and-10 at Florida State's 11-yard-line during the Chick-fil-A Bowl. After an incomplete pass to Alshon Jeffery (that frustrating fade route) and an offside penalty on the Seminoles' Jacobbi McDaniel, Garcia set up on second-and-5 from the 6, where Kenny Miles rushed for 3 yards. Trailing 16-3, the Gamecocks needed a touchdown; facing third down, with no Marcus Lattimore, Garcia needed a play.

Steve Spurrier found one.

Garcia took the snap and screen-passed to Ace Sanders on the left. Looking back, the pass was perfect because it was a little high, a little behind, meaning Sanders had to take a step back to catch it. The defense bit, thinking it would have a tackle for loss, and charged as Sanders stopped. I remember thinking, "Who's got ... ?" before I saw Garcia roll around right end.

Sanders threw, Garcia caught, touchdown. The two guys next to me in the pressbox (from national media) each actually applauded.

There are still a few tricks under that visor.

9. HIIII-YAAAAAH!
At Auburn, Garcia saw the rush and fired to Brian Maddox, who had gone into the line, then broken right. Maddox scooped a shoestring catch, turned upfield and saw the Tigers' T'Sharvan Bell waiting on the boundary, playing for the force-out.

Maddox packs 229 pounds on a coiled 5-foot-11 spring. His arms look like they were stitched together over shot-puts. He ain't gonna be forced out-of-bounds.

Bell stepped forward, arms spread, feet set and head staring at Maddox's waist. Maddox planted one foot into the turf and leaped, almost hurdling Bell.

The only reason he didn't was because his trailing foot smacked Bell in the chin. Bell crumpled like a mound of wet clothes while another defender jumped to tackle Maddox in mid-air (and how impressive was it that Maddox landed with the ball still contained and popped right back up?)

If he'd have spun before he kicked, Maddox would have rivaled Chuck Norris.

8. KICK TO THE PANTS

Ahead 19-7 at halftime, USC didn't have to win the game but wanted to win the game. It was Clemson, and even though the Gamecocks had a date in the SEC Championship Game the next week, Clemson offered a chance to change history. Not in 40 years had USC beaten the archrival Tigers in two straight seasons.

Following an early yip, USC had taken a comfortable lead. As the Gamecocks punted away their first possession and Clemson got two first downs on two plays, USC needed a stop.

Kyle Parker was rushed and thought he saw a man open. The receiver was, but wasn't expecting the ball until 10 yards further downfield and never looked up. The pass sailed to another spot -- between the 2 and the 6 stamped on Antonio Allen's jersey.

Allen easily raced in for a pick-six touchdown, settling the game and ending Parker's night. It was yet another defensive touchdown in a late-season stretch full of them.

(By the way, "Kick To The Pants" -- see what I did there?)

7. BENCH STRENGTH

USC lost to Kentucky when Lattimore, its offensive workhorse, sprained his ankle in the third quarter. The next week at Vanderbilt, USC said Lattimore could have played, but the Gamecocks didn't want to risk further injury.

That they didn't have to was because two players, in their last seasons at USC, refused to let the Gamecocks down.

In an ugly 21-7 win that wasn't settled until two-thirds through the fourth quarter, the Gamecocks got 146 rushing yards from Maddox and 14 catches for 112 yards from Tori Gurley. Maddox took over for Miles, who had been squashed early in his starting role, and Gurley helped out when Garcia and Jeffery couldn't find their connection.

(Maybe not fair to group the two game-long contributions under the heading "plays," but forgive me.)

6. GUTS

Garcia saw the opening and ran, skirting the edge and finding the sideline. He also saw the Southern Miss players waiting for him at the 5-yard-line and knew the safest choice was to step out-of-bounds.

Safe? This is Stephen Garcia.

Garcia lowered his head and plowed into the defender, the crunch audible in the pressbox. That guy fell down, but Garcia looked at his feet and saw they weren't touching the chalk of the sideline. He spun to his right and kept going, falling in for the season's first touchdown.

Not only was it a highlight-reel play, but it birthed one of my favorite Spurrier words. "He ran over the guy at the 8-yard-line and caroomed into the end zone." Him saying "caroomed" was almost as funny as him greeting the Chick-fil-A cow at the bowl announcement.

(Really made me think of this play when there was that whole "not going to play him if he runs with his head down" diatribe after the first Auburn game. Garcia kept doing it after that, but he also played much better in the passing game.)

5. THE STEPHON SACK

Trailing 28-21 and knowing he'd never lost a game as a starting quarterback, No. 1 Alabama's Greg McElroy had driven the Crimson Tide to the Gamecocks' 18-yard-line. What to do -- hand off to Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram? Screen to Trent Richardson? Throw deep to Julio Jones?

How about, get sacked on third-and-4 by the cornerback?

Stephon Gilmore charged through and dropped McElroy for a 7-yard-loss, forcing the Tide to try for a field goal. They ended up trying to fake it, but a pass to Ed Stinson was dropped (USC was in position to stick Stinson before the first-down marker anyway).

I often wonder what would have happened if Gilmore wouldn't have gotten there. As it was, USC used that momentum and scored the back-breaking TD. Gilmore may have made some bad mistakes as the season went on, but on that day, he had one of several plays of the game.

4. NOW YOU SEE ME ...

USC was in control, then wasn't. A two-touchdown lead at home over Tennessee was equaled when the Volunteers began carving the Gamecocks' pass defense apart.

The Vols tied it at 24 with 13:17 to play as USC tried to regroup. The Gamecocks knew they had the weapons to win, but would they fall victim to their own past?

Not this time.

Garcia came in after Connor Shaw had rushed for 2 yards, needing 8 yards for the first down and 70 for the touchdown. Wisely deciding to go for the first, Garcia threw underneath to Jeffery, who had camped in the middle of the field.

Jeffery caught it and noticed there were no arms about to wrap him. The multi-talented kid from Calhoun County decided to show he not only had the hands, he had the speed.

Quickly turning and moving to his left as the defenders closed, Jeffery kicked in the afterburners as he found the sideline. Jeffery churned to the 10, where he held the ball outstretched as he crossed the goal line.

I wasn't much of a fan of the celebration (1., How many times has that turned into a USC miscue? and 2., That's a reversed score for unsportsmanlike conduct next year) but man, that play was something. As many times as Jeffery makes you stop and say, "Wow!," that one did it once more.

3. THE GAMECOCKS GET OUT ALIVE

Leading Florida 15-7 at the half, playing for the SEC East title, USC was winning but was sputtering. The offense couldn't get fully in control, settling for Spencer Lanning's field goals, and the defense was playing lights-out but one could sense a breakdown looming.

As Garcia overcame penalties and dropped passes to move the Gamecocks to the Florida 21 at the beginning of the third quarter, he figured on running the ball and the clock. Lattimore was ready.

The snap was bobbled. Lattimore never dropped it, but had trouble securing it. He was standing stock-still in the backfield as the Gators' defensive front crashed through.

But as he did throughout, Lattimore saw his room and shot through it.

Suddenly clear after the line tried to wrap something that was no longer there, Lattimore galloped toward the goal line. Taking advantage of a wonderful seal block from D.L. Moore, Lattimore side-stepped, was hit but still fell in.

The score was 22-7 and the Gamecocks never looked back.

Although they needed one more big play.

2. JOSH

Look, there was still plenty of time to blow it. I've seen too many USC games where certain victory was turned into defeat.

When Florida scored to make it 29-14 with 7:12 to go, I wasn't quite ready to start writing my championship sidebar. There was just too much that could happen -- like John Brantley recording a first down, then a second-down pass that set up a third-and-4 from the Gators' 31.

Brantley turned and handed off to Jeffery Demps for a run up the middle. The ball, never fluidly exchanged, hit Demps' hands and bounced to the ground. Before Brantley or Demps could decide who was going to pick it up, Josh Dickerson plunged through the line and fell on the ball.

Huge, huge play. That clinched it. I set up my sidebar and rushed to the field, missing Lattimore's extra touchdown in the process. A great play for a great kid, who played a fine (if significantly understated) season.

1. WOW-SHON!

The pass went up to the sideline. Looked destined for out-of-bounds to me, until I saw Jeffery racing to catch it.

Somehow, I'm still not quite sure, he turned that pass into a completion. Despite a hand on his jersey from the defender, yanking the "Carolina" into a "Carna." Despite being pulled hard enough to be spun around.

And still, he caught it with one hand, spun out of the tackle, and kept running.

The reaction on Nick Saban's face was priceless. He looked like he wanted to go out and make the tackle. As Every Day Should Be Saturday phrased it, "He'll be pumping gas all right. Into his Ferrari."

In a year and career full of them, that was Jeffery's best catch. And easily the play of USC's year.

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