South Carolina 24, Central Florida 15
South Carolina football fans waited more than nine months to witness the fruits of Steve Spurrier's improbable arrival here, and they had to wait a few more hours Thursday night if they were among the impatient souls stuck in traffic on Assembly Street, where they were greeted by a sign that read, "Welcome to Spurrier Country."
But a summer of anticipation for some of the nation's most loyal fans was met with sobering results in the opener against Central Florida. South Carolina looked explosive during its first two possessions, as the offense Spurrier dubbed "Cock and Fire" produced big passing plays that had largely been absent under former coach Lou Holtz.
But after taking a 21-point lead midway through the third quarter, the Gamecocks resembled the team they've mostly been for more than a century, stumbling and fumbling through the final 211/2 minutes before holding on for a 24-15 win in front of a sellout crowd of 82,753.
"Well, it was an unusual game, but the Gamecocks won," Spurrier said. "It was tough out there. Central Florida was pretty good. It looked easy early, but all of a sudden it got tough."
After fumbling away a punt return and kickoff return in the fourth quarter, South Carolina didn't secure the victory until its defense stuffed Central Florida running back Kevin Smith on fourth and goal at the 1-yard line with 2 minutes 9 seconds left.
When South Carolina's offense failed to get the ball away from its own end zone in the closing minutes, Spurrier did something that must still have him steaming: He had his punter run through the back of the end zone for a safety, cutting the Gamecocks' lead to only nine points with 57 seconds left. The game ended when Central Florida's Darcy Johnson dropped a pass at South Carolina's goal line.
"It was a tough night, but we're 1-0 and we're not going to sit around here and cry about it because we could have lost the game with all the dadgum things that happened," Spurrier said.
Even though the Gamecocks weren't in danger of losing at the very end, the fourth quarter had to be alarming for Spurrier and a wake-up call for his team's rabid fans. The Gamecocks' defensive lapses, special teams breakdowns and stagnant offense in the second half showed that Spurrier might not be able to produce the rapid turnaround many South Carolina fans are expecting, despite his ultra-successful coaching history in college football.
The victory had to be a relief for Spurrier, who hadn't coached in a college football game since he quit as Florida's coach two days after the Gators beat Maryland, 56-23, in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 2, 2002. After two unsuccessful seasons as coach of the Washington Redskins, Spurrier spent more than a year in a self-induced exile from football until he was hired as Holtz's successor last Nov. 23.
But Spurrier surely wishes his team had played better in front of a national TV audience against Central Florida, which has lost 16 games in a row, the longest losing streak in Division I-A. After quarterback Blake Mitchell's 25-yard touchdown pass to Syvelle Newton made it 24-3 with 6:35 to go in the third quarter, the Gamecocks seemingly tried to find every way to lose.
On the second play of the fourth quarter, defensive back Johnathan Joseph muffed a punt return, and the football bounced into the hands of Central Florida's Ron Ellis. Then the Carolina defense surrendered Steven Moffett's 13-yard touchdown pass to Mike Walker on third and 6 six, cutting the Gamecocks' lead to 24-10.
After the Golden Knights kicked a field goal to make it 24-13 with 6:05 to go, Newton fumbled the kickoff return and the Golden Knights recovered at the Carolina 20.
The Golden Knights drove inside the Gamecocks 5, but when Smith tried to dive over the top for a touchdown, defensive tackle Matt Rayson wrapped up his legs and linebacker Ryan Brown knocked him backward.
"I'm not going to feel bad because a few plays here and there, they beat us," Spurrier said. "I'm going to enjoy being 1-0."