The fairy tale continued today for South Carolina.
In this afternoon's episode, the fifth-ranked Gamecocks almost blew the ending. They trailed North Carolina State, 15-3, at halftime, took the lead with 11 minutes left in the game, fell behind, took the lead again, got tied with 3:26 to go and finally scored the winning touchdown with 50 seconds left to escape with a 35-28 victory.
"I was scared the whole fourth quarter," said running back Raynard Brown, one of many heroes for South Carolina. "The game was so intense you just didn't know what to expect from one play to the next."
What the 8-0 Gamecocks have come to expect during this unlikely season in which they have come from behind three times in the fourth quarter is that they will find a way to win. Today, against State (3-6), it took them more than 59 minutes, but finally they found the answer again.
"Any time we line up now we expect folks to be shooting at us," said Coach Joe Morrison, whose team has equalled the school record for victories. "Today, we were letting State do to us in the first half rather than us do to them. Fortunately, we turned it around in time."
On a gray, chilly afternoon, with 46,200 in Carter-Finley Stadium, the Gamecocks looked like anything but an unbeaten team in the first half.
They committed two roughing penalties that wiped out an interception in one case and kept a State drive going in another. Their quarterbacks missed receivers and turned the ball over. Their backs seemed to miss holes. Their fans came equipped with oranges (as in Orange Bowl) but looked like they were going to have eat them before day's end.
"We just didn't have the sharpness we needed," said quarterback Mike Hold, who came on in relief of Kevin Mitchell, as he has done all season, and led the rally. "Usually, we make the big plays. Today, for a long time, they made the big plays."
The biggest plays for State were made by halfback Vince Evans, who rushed for 158 yards on 30 carries, including a 25-yard run up the middle for the game's first score.
But that was early. In the last 15 minutes, this game become totally wild.
The fourth quarter was nothing but big plays. It started with State leading, 18-10. Before it was over the two teams had combined for 35 points -- 22 during a span of 2:28 -- and 421 yards offense. South Carolina gained 423 of its 573 yards in the second half.
"I think it's fair to say the defenses got a little tired," Morrison said.
After Scott Hagler kicked a 32-yard field goal to start the quarter and make it 18-13, sanity took a holiday. After South Carolina held State, it took possession at its own 21.
Five plays later, the Gamecocks faced third and 16 at their 39. Quarterback Hold dropped back, looked and found no one open. He ducked two tacklers, stepped up and located tight end Chris Corley, open at the State 40. Corley made a finger tip catch, swerved to the right sideline and was gone, 61 yards for a touchdown.
"When I saw Mike in trouble I came back towards him," Corley said. "Their backs stayed deep so when I caught the ball I had room. I'm not the fastest guy in the world but when I got to the sideline I saw lots of daylight. I just ran."
He ran to a 19-18 lead which became 21-18 when Hold pitched the ball to Quinton Lewis, who turned and threw back across the field to Hold for a two-point conversion.
There was 11:04 left and it looked like State would fold. But the Wolfpack came right back, moving 70 yards in three plays, the last a 48-yard pass from quarterback Tim Esposito to wide receiver Haywood Jeffires. Esposito lobbed the ball to the goal line, where the 6-foot-4 Jeffires outjumped 5-9 defensive back Otis Morris for the ball, wrestling with him as they rolled into the end zone.
Now, State was back on top, 25-21. The Gamecocks shrugged their shoulders and came back with a 75-yard, four-play drive. Thomas Dendy capped it, going 14 yards up the middle to put USC ahead again, 28-25, with 8:36 left.
The South Carolina defense then held -- sort of. State drove to the South Carolina 11. But on third and one, the Wolfpack took too long getting off its play. A moment later on third and six, an Esposito pass to Jeff Brown came up a yard and a half shy of the first down. Coach Tom Reed elected to take a 28-yard Mike Cofer field goal to make the score 28-28.
"We wanted to force them to throw, maybe get a tip or something," Reed said. "If it had been a half yard instead of a yard and a half, it would have been different."
It made no difference to South Carolina. Starting on their own 20, the Gamecocks methodically marched the length of the field, delayed only when star halfback Kent Hagood (20 carries, 111 yards) broke his leg going off tackle.
Even then, Hold and company never wavered. Hold hit Corley on the next play for 17 yards to the 24. From there, Dendy did the rest on the ground, picking up the last six yards on the same counter-trap play that he had scored on earlier.
So, the Gamecocks walked off the field, exhausted but with their improbable story one chapter longer. Now, Florida State, Navy and Clemson are left.
"We knew they were trying to take something away from us that we've worked a whole season for," said Hold (eight of 17 passing, 198 yards). "We just weren't going to let them do it to us without a hell of a fight."