COLUMBIA, S.C.-- The Vanderbilt Commodores' hopes for an elusive bowl bid took a shot to the broadside Saturday on a sunny, windy afternoon at Williams-Brice Stadium.
In a battle between two teams struggling to keep late-season bowl hopes alive, South Carolina (4-3, 2-3 SEC) held off a late rally by Vanderbilt for a thrilling 35-28 Homecoming win. The Commodores (4-4, 2-3) rallied from 14 points down to tie the game in the fourth quarter, only to allow the Gamecocks to drive 77 yards for the winning score.
USC's Sidney Rice scored what proved to be the winning touchdown with 1:41 left on a 3-yard pass play from Blake Mitchell. Given a chance to tie the game on its last possession, Vanderbilt drove to the South Carolina 30 as the seconds ticked away, but was unable to advance further.
"It was a fun game, sort of interesting," said Steve Spurrier, whose Gamecocks won their second in a row. "I always tell the guys it will be a physical game, to prepare them mentally. That is what it was."
"It was an extremely exciting game," said Bobby Johnson, whose Commodores lost their fourth straight after starting the season 4-0. "I'm proud of our guys for hanging in there and making a comeback.
"I'm a little disappointed in our effort after we tied it to try to get that ball at least into an overtime, or get the ball back to our offense to see if we could do something with it to break the tie."
With three games remaining, the Commodores still need to win at least two in order to qualify for their first bowl bid since 1982. The six-win plateau is still do-able, but this game vs. South Carolina, which had struggled in its first season under Steve Spurrier, appeared to provide a much better opportunity for a win than upcoming road games vs. Florida and Tennessee.
The loss marred a brilliant receiving night by true freshman Earl Bennett, who finished with 16 catches for 204 yards and a touchdown. With starters Erik Davis and Marlon White both ailing, Bennett was Jay Cutler's first and best option, and he made the most of it.
"Earl had a fantastic game," said Johnson. "He's a very fine player and we have a lot of confidence throwing him the football. We had to throw it to Earl. We didn't have anybody else, basically."
Add in his 75 yards on kickoff returns and 2 yards on a punt return, and Bennett finished with 270 all-purpose yards.
Cutler's night wasn't too shabby either-- the senior had a career-high 339 passing yards to go with 25 rushing yards. His 27 completions moved him past Greg Zolman on the school's all-time completions list. But the senior captain was ultimately frustrated by the team's inability to tie or win the game in the fourth quarter.
"We realize there are only three games left now," he said. "For our seniors, that's possibly all we will have. We want to go to a bowl, so we've obviously got to win two out of three. It's going to be difficult."
Carolina took a 7-0 lead on a short drive late in the first quarter. Vandy tied it early in the second quarter when Cheron Thompson picked off a Mitchell pass and returned it 13 yards for a score. It was Vandy's first defensive score in almost a year.
"That was a special moment," Thompson said. "It was my first interception and my first touchdown. I saw the wide side of the field was open, so I just took my chance, ran to the end zone and dove in." The 7-7 score stood until halftime.
A long Cutler pass to Erik Davis set up a 2-yard touchdown run by Cassen Jackson-Garrison on Vandy's first possession of the second half. But South Carolina would answer with a touchdown on one of Spurrier's patented "ball plays"-- a double-pass play for an 11-yard touchdown that made it 14-14. Late in the third quarter Syvelle Newton, who played quarterback and running back for USC, found Sidney Rice for a 34-yard score to make it 21-14 Gamecocks.
Carolina capitalized on another Commodore turnover early in the fourth quarter. After a Jonathan Joseph interception return to the Commodore 30, Newton took a handoff and scored on a brilliant, twisting, 11-yard touchdown run. (Newton left the game with a serious ankle injury on his run.) The TD stretched the lead to 28-14 with 11:01 left.
But Vanderbilt would rally to tie the game with a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns. First, Cutler culminated a four-play drive when he hit Earl Bennett in the end zone with a 41-yard bomb. It was Bennett's first career touchdown, and it made the score 28-21 with 10:17 left.
"Our main motto is to 'Play like a Champion'," Bennett said. "We just always play and don't ever give up until it's over."
The Commodore defense forced a punt, and on the ensuing drive, the Commodores marched 87 yards for the game-tying score. Cutler converted a critical fourth-and-10 with an 11-yard pass to-- who else?-- Bennett, setting up a 6-yard Cassen Jackson-Garrison run for the tying score with 3:55 left.
With Newton sidelined, Mitchell engineered a 77-yard scoring drive that turned out to be the game-winner. Rice, who caught 8 passes on the day for 132 yards, caught his third touchdown pass of the day to make it 35-28 with 1:41 left.
Vanderbilt got the ball back on its own 23 and would drive to the Gamecock 30. But South Carolina dropped back into zone coverage, and Cutler threw four incompletions to end Vandy's chances.
The Commodores get next Saturday off before a trip to Gainesville to play No. 18 Florida (5-2, 3-2); game time has not yet been set. The Gators were idle Saturday.
"We've got a bye week now, so we've got to go back and work on a few things, and hopefully have a good shot at Florida," Cutler said.
South Carolina faces No. 17 Tennessee next Saturday in Knoxville.
George Smith started in place of Erik Davis, who continues to struggle with a lower leg injury. Davis played a limited amount, and finished with 1 catch for 25 yards.
Marlon White, who has been struggling with an ankle injury for several weeks, left the game in the second quarter and did not return. He finished without a reception.
South Carolina defeated Vanderbilt for the sixth straight time. Vanderbilt is now 0-13 all-time vs. Steve Spurrier-coached teams (0-2 vs. Duke, 0-10 vs. Florida, 0-1 vs. South Carolina).