Head coach Steve Spurrier took advantage of every opportunity this week to criticize - and challenge - the performance of the South Carolina defense in the first three games this season.
Obviously, they were listening.
The 12th-ranked Gamecocks put on the most dominating defensive display of Spurrier's seven-year tenure, limiting Vanderbilt to 77 total yards and five first downs in an overpowering 21-3 victory Saturday night before 77,015 fans at Williams-Brice Stadium.
"Our defense came to play tonight," Spurrier said. "That was by far our best game of the year. Basically had a shutout. We really limited Vandy to not much at all. Obviously, our defense was the big reason we won the game. I'm glad we had good defense tonight because our offense did very little."
Vanderbilt converted only 1-of-14 third-down situations and mustered just four yards rushing on 25 attempts. It was the fewest yards rushing by a Gamecock opponent since 1997 when East Carolina managed 4 yards on the ground in a 26-0 victory for USC in Greenville, N.C.
In the process, the defense overcame a lethargic performance by quarterback Stephen Garcia and the USC offense. Garcia threw a career-high four interceptions, completing 16-of-30 passes for 228 yards and one touchdown.
"Our offense sputtered around most of the game, had a bunch of penalties after some big plays here and there," Spurrier said. "The offense did very little. We had a lot of bad plays, interceptions. Stephen had a tough night. We can't hit much right now. We've got to have hope we can hit something in the future."
The USC offense finished with a respectable 367 total yards, 236 through the air, and was 10-of-19 on third downs. Yet, because of the interceptions and a dismal first-half performance (134 total yards; 82 yards until the final offensive snap), Spurrier apologized to USC fans for the "putrid performance" by the offense.
"We were really a poorly coached offense tonight representing the Gamecocks," Spurrier said. "But we won the game. I'm really proud of our defensive team. They all played super. We had a good solid plan and they executed it well. They had fun playing football tonight."
USC had 82 total yards on its first 32 offensive snaps, 285 yards on their final 40 snaps, including two plays of 50 or more yards.
USC improved to 4-0 and finished the night tied for first place in the SEC East with Florida. Both schools are 2-0 in conference play. The Gamecocks host Auburn next Saturday with kickoff set for noon or 3:30 p.m.
Florida must host Alabama and travel to LSU in the next two weeks.
The win secured USC's first 4-0 start since 2001.
After four games, Garcia has three touchdown passes and seven interceptions. Not exactly the numbers most analysts expected from the fifth-year senior quarterback, who has two of the most talented skill-position players in the nation surrounding him.
Garcia insisted he wasn't frustrated with the way the offense performed.
"A win is a win," he said. "If we had lost, then yes, I would have been very frustrated."
Spurrier deflected talk about a quarterback controversy, saying Garcia would "probably" start against Auburn next Saturday.
"I'm not going to say anything about Stephen," Spurrier said. "Stephen is actually trying the best he can. That's all you can ask for as a coach."
Marcus Lattimore struggled to find enough running room all night as Vanderbilt stacked the box, daring Garcia to beat them. The sophomore finished with 77 yards on 20 attempts and scored two touchdowns, a 52-yard reception in the closing seconds of the first half and a 22-yard run in the third quarter.
"It was a tough night for Marcus too," Spurrier said. "They stuffed him up pretty dog gone good in there. He made some great two-yard runs. We didn't block very well. Coach Elliott is upset with his offensive line. Vandy's defensive line got the best of us. We couldn't knock them backwards a lick. It was two pretty good defenses playing."
The TD reception by Lattimore marked the longest pass play of the year for the Gamecocks. Lattimore has scored nine touchdowns this season, pushing his career total to 27 TDs in 17 games.
The 77 yards were a season low for Lattimore, ending his streak of three consecutive 100-yard rushing games. But he surpassed the 600-yard plateau, ending the game with 611 yards for the season.
"They did some good things up front," Lattimore said. "They did a lot of twists, things we haven't seen in the first three games. They weren't foreign to us, but it was a tough game with tough yards."
Wide receiver Alshon Jeffery had two receptions for 34 yards and passed Sterling Sharpe for second place on USC's all-time receiving yardage list. The leading receiver was Ace Sanders, who had four receptions for 75 yards.
Ahead 14-3 at halftime, the only points scored by either team in the second half came on USC's opening possession of the third quarter when the Gamecocks pieced together their longest scoring drive of the night, an 11-play, 83-yard masterpiece culminated by Lattimore's 22-yard TD run with 7:46 remaining.
The biggest play of the drive was a 51-yard reception by Ace Sanders on third-and-21 down to the Vandy 22. Lattimore raced into the end zone on the next play.
The following possession, Jay Wooten missed a 46-yard field goal. Garcia was pulled after throwing his fourth interception of the night on USC's second snap of the fourth quarter inside the red zone.
In the end, the discouraging performance by the USC offense mattered little because the defensive front seven overwhelmed the Vanderbilt offensive line all night.
"Vandy is not a great offense. We knew that coming in," Spurrier said. "But to hold them to five first downs and 77 yards. And that last pass was about 30. That was a super defensive game, no matter who we were playing. We played well and tackled well. All the coaches had an excellent game plan."
Twelve of Vanderbilt's 14 possessions lasted three plays or less. Their only points of the game came on a first-quarter field goal.
"Offensively, we got manhandled up front," Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin said. "Their athleticism up front was obvious. We struggled with that all night. We allowed way too many hits on our quarterback. We just got into a situation where we couldn't protect and we couldn't block in the running game."
The USC defense finished with six sacks, 12 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and one interception. Jadeveon Clowney and Melvin Ingram had two sacks each. Clowney now has four sacks in four games after Spurrier insisted earlier in the week that the freshman from Rock Hill should play 80 percent of the snaps.
Clowney and Ingram, along with Antonio Allen, combined for the most exciting defensive play of the game. The result of the play was Ingram's third touchdown of the season, second defensively, with just under 12 minutes left in the second quarter.
The best word to describe the South Carolina's offense in the first half is ugly. But whatever the antonym of 'ugly' is, that word describes the USC defense over the first 30 minutes.
Sparked by one of the wildest plays of the year, USC led Vanderbilt, 14-3, at halftime as the USC defense bailed out the Gamecocks time and again when the offense suffered through one bad play after another.
But, after doing little except flounder around for more than 29 minutes, Lattimore took a screen pass and raced 52 yards for his eighth touchdown of the season. Thirteen seconds remained in the first half when he crossed into the end zone.
Vanderbilt's strategy of utilizing a 4-4 defense and putting eight or even nine defenders in the box in an effort to stop Lattimore worked well. They held the sophomore to 20 yards rushing in the first half.
The Commodores dared Garcia to throw the ball and except for USC's final offensive snap, that strategy also worked. Garcia was 8-of-17 for 112 yards in the first half, more than half on those yards coming on the TD by Lattimore, who took a screen and raced through the Vanderbilt defense.
The USC defense held Vanderbilt to 32 total yards in the first half on 28 plays. The Commodores were held to minus-4 yards rushing on 16 attempts.
USC had 134 yards of total offense in the first half, 22 on the ground. The two teams combined for 18 yards rushing on 32 attempts.
Early in the second quarter, Clowney roared through and forced a fumble from Vanderbilt quarterback Larry Smith. The ball was scooped up by Antonio Allen (third fumble recovery on the season), but the senior from Ocala, Fla., was stripped at the VU 11 and the ball rolled forward into the end zone.
Ingram fell on the football for his third touchdown of the season, and the fourth score by the USC defense. Ingram finished the first half with four tackles, two sacks and the fumble recovery for the TD.
USC received the opening kickoff and drove inside the VU 30 when the drive stalled. After running the ball early, Spurrier called seven straight pass plays. The biggest gainer was a 17-yard pass to Ace Sanders.
However, the drive ended on a sour note when Garcia was pressured up the middle and lofted up a pass to nobody. It was intercepted by the Commodores.
However, the defense forced a three-and-out. Ace Sanders fumbled on the punt return but managed to fall on it. USC gambled on fourth down from their 40 but Garcia was stacked up for no gain, handing the ball to the Commodores in USC territory.
But the defense came up with their second big stop and Vandy's punt was downed at the USC 4. Garcia, though, threw his second interception of the game to VU's Casey Hayward, who returned it to the SC 22.
The USC defense stiffened inside the red zone and Vanderbilt settled for a 33-yard field goal by Carey Spear with 1:43 left in the first quarter. It turned out to be Vandy's only points of the night.
When Garcia threw his third interception early in the second quarter, the boos cascaded down. But moments later, Clowney, Allen and Ingram teamed for the defensive touchdown and the crowd roared.
The defense had saved the Gamecocks again. It would become the theme of the night.
FINAL STATISTICS: Total Yards - USC 367, VU 77; Passing Yards - USC, 236, VU 73; Rushing Yards - USC 131, VU 4; Individual Passing - USC, Stephen Garcia 16-30 for 228 yards, VU Larry Smith 12-16 for 44 yards Individual Rushing - USC, Marcus Lattimore 20 for 77 yards; VU, Zac Stacy 7 for 18 yards.
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