As running back Thomas Dendy ran into the end zone in the final minute of South Carolina's 35-28 victory here Saturday over North Carolina State, players began hugging one another in celebration.

In the midst of the jubilation, Coach Joe Morrison stood silently, his arms folded, his black cap tugged down low over his face, not even the trace of a smile crossing his lips. Moments later, when the game was over, he strode across the field, his escort of two state troopers right behind, his face still somber.

"It's just one more Saturday," he said a few minutes later.

But so far this fall, Morrison and South Carolina have weathered eight Saturdays without a loss. They struggled to beat The Citadel, they have had to come from behind -- from 15-3 last week, from 32-14 at Notre Dame -- but each week they have made it.

As a result, in college football's upside-down season, they find themselves ranked fifth in the nation and suddenly in favor with scouts from several major bowls -- the Orange, Sugar and Fiesta.

"We know we're supposed to keep things in perspective and take things one at a time," said senior guard Del Wilkes, who once quit football in disgust. "But anyone who tells you we aren't dreaming about stuff like big bowls and a national championship is lying to you. If you don't think about those things, you just aren't human."

Even to discuss such dreams is heady stuff for a school that has made mediocrity its watchword in football. Entering this season, South Carolina had played exactly .500 football (386-386) for 91 years. It had never won more than eight games in a season, had never won a bowl game (0-5) and in recent years any national attention it had received had almost always centered on turmoil.

"You have to remember that this is the first time most of the players on this team have had the same coaching staff for two straight years," running back Raynard Brown said. "Last year (Morrison's first), there was no togetherness. Now, there really is, not just talk of it, real togetherness."

Overseeing the transformation from sorry to superb is Morrison, a former New York Giant. Morrison, 47, is from the no-nonsense school of football coaches, a man apt to answer most questions with anywhere from one to three words. But he also is someone who has that intangible ability to get his message across to players.

"He never raises his voice," wide receiver Ira Hillery said. "But he doesn't have to. His message is always clear. If you do well, he tells you; if you mess up, he lets you know, too. You're never left wondering where you stand with him."

This team mirrors Morrison as a player in many ways. Never big or fast, he starred for 14 years in the National Football League, playing well enough to have his number 40 retired when he was through playing.

This is Morrison's third job as a head coach. He turned Tennessee-Chattanooga into a winner in seven years and was 10-1 in his third and final year at New Mexico before getting the South Carolina job.

They call him "the Marlboro Man" now because he dresses in black on game days, smokes nonstop and looks as if his face might break if he attempted a smile.

In a state that treats football more as a crusade than as a game, he has quickly become a folk hero. His dress and slight drawl are imitated and his words carry the weight of a winner.

Like its coach, South Carolina is not that big or that fast. It has no superstar, no one like George Rogers, who won the Heisman Trophy on a team that finished 8-4, including a humiliating 37-9 Gator Bowl loss to Pittsburgh.

This team just wins. It wins with halfback passes in the last minutes (against The Citadel for a 31-24 victory). It wins with three touchdowns in the last quarter against Notre Dame. It wins by jumping ahead of Georgia and staying in front. It wins with 423 second-half yards against N.C. State after an awful first half.

In a season with one upset after another, the Gamecocks have had some luck, catching Notre Dame and Pitt in down years, for example. But they also have shown grit, coming from behind, never seeming to be out of a game.

"Chemistry, I guess," said quarterback Mike Hold, who comes on in relief of starter Allen Mitchell each week and has been mostly brilliant. "This team really likes each other. That isn't always true on a football team."

It certainly wasn't true at South Carolina before this year. Players say the team was divided by cliques as recently as last year and that many of those cliques were built along racial lines.

"Last year, if you walked into our dining hall you would never find black players sitting with white players or vice versa," Brown said. "It really bothered me, I even mentioned it once in a team meeting because my team wasn't like that in high school.

"But this year, without the coaches saying anything about it, things have changed. Now, we do sit together; you don't see those little groups. It's like we've all figured out that you don't play the game in small groups, so you better learn to live together as one group."

Brown is black, Wilkes is white. He agrees with Brown. "No doubt about it, last year when you walked into the dining room you could shut your eyes and know the whites were on the right side and the blacks were on the left," he said. "It wasn't like we hated each other; we just didn't have anything to do with each other. That's not good for a football team. I'm glad it's changed."

Morrison won't talk about whether his team had a racial problem last year. "That's for the players to talk about if they want to," he said. "This team has good chemistry, I think that's obvious. Getting away from small groups is part of that."

There are three games left for the Gamecocks. Saturday, on national televison, they play Florida State, certainly their toughest test since the Georgia game. After that comes Navy and, finally, they play at Clemson. The Gamecocks have not beaten their bitter in-state rivals since 1979 and have lost seven of the last eight.

Having come this far, South Carolina does not believe that anything is impossible. No one in his right mind would have projected this team as 8-0 at the start of the season.

After all, the school had gone 6-6 in 1981 under Jim Carlen. He was fired. It had gone 4-7 in 1982 under Richard Bell. He, too, was fired, but he did not go quietly, suing the school for breach of contract and winning a court judgment of $171,000.

In 1983, under Morrison, the record was 5-6 and there was no reason to believe this would be a turnaround season.

"This team has always had talent," Wilkes said. "We're winning now with the same players who went 6-6, 4-7 and 5-6. The difference is that in the past when we played a Georgia or a Notre Dame, we went out thinking we needed a miracle or them to have an awful day for us to win.

"Now, we know, if we go out and play up to our potential, we can win the ball game. We don't think about how we're going to lose; we think about how we're going to win."

Even Morrison, who, like any football coach, is prone to worry first and celebrate later, has come to appreciate his team's ability to find a way.

"When State tied the score (with 3:26 left in the game), I looked at the faces of our players," Morrison said Saturday. "I don't think there was one of them who didn't think we were going to win. As a coach, you have to feel good about a group like that."