South Carolina used a dominant third quarter to avoid an upset scare from Central Florida on Saturday afternoon, escaping Bright House Networks Stadium with a 28-25 victory.
The Gamecocks fell behind 10-0 at halftime after Connor Shaw was forced from the game early in the first quarter with a shoulder injury, but running back Mike Davis and Steve Spurrier's talented defense quickly silenced the home crowd in the second half.
Davis finished the game with 167 yards and three touchdowns on 26 carries, while the defense forced three turnovers in the second half (and four overall) to help South Carolina move to 3-1 with the narrow victory.
Despite the scare, there was reason to celebrate as the Gamecocks pulled away late:
South Carolina entered as a clear favorite, but that notion was quickly tossed out the window as soon as Shaw went down. The dual-threat senior quarterback completed just one of two passes for four yards on the Gamecocks' opening drive, but he ran for 30 more on just four carries and was moving down the field with ease.
After a 12-yard run, however, he was hit with the double whammy: a lost fumble and a shoulder injury. ESPN's college football Twitter feed provided a look at the play:
Junior Dylan Thompson entered and was unable to do much of anything. Not only was he inaccurate throwing the ball, but the dynamism that Shaw brought was gone, and the running game slowed considerably.
On the other side of the ball, Central Florida used a conservative game plan to sustain long drives, control the time of possession and enter the locker room ahead, 10-0.
Whatever Steve Spurrier said (yelled) to his team at halftime apparently worked, though, as the Gamecocks came out with a comprehensive, assertive effort.
The opening drive in the third quarter went like this: Davis six-yard run, Brandon Wilds five-yard run, Davis 11-yard run, Davis 53-yard touchdown run. That's 75 yards in 69 seconds:
After a Wilds fumble on the next drive, Thompson got the ball back and put together what was easily the best drive of the game. He completed a 28-yard pass to Rory Anderson and hit Damiere Byrd for 38 on a beautiful touch throw to quickly move the ball to the 4-yard line. Three players later, he ran it in himself to cap off the 11-play, 96-yard drive.
At the same time, the Gamecocks defense had woken up. Jadeveon Clowney brought constant pressure, and UCF was forced to two-straight 3-and-outs. At that point, Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel dropped this ridiculous stat:
The Knights finally grabbed a couple of first downs, but a trick-play attempt resulted in wide receiver Jeff Godfrey throwing an interception to Jimmy Legree. That set up a Davis touchdown to make it 21-10.
These fans, via The Big Lead's Michael Shamburger, pretty much summed up the play call:
George O'Leary's squad didn't quit, however. After Davis' third touchdown, UCF quarterback Blake Bortles connected with Rannell Hall for a 73-yard score:
After a successful two-point conversion, suddenly the Knights were within striking distance—28-18—with plenty of time remaining in the fourth quarter.
Bortles threw an interception on the subsequent drive, but he responded with a quick 95-yard touchdown drive fueled by a 79-yard completion to Breshad Perriman after a Davis fumble. But UCF wasn't able to recover the ensuing onside kick, thus ending the wild finish.
Dylan Thompson, QB, South Carolina: B
It wasn't exactly pretty, but Thompson deserves credit for quarterbacking his team to a win on the road.
There were certainly some forgettable moments. He was inaccurate for much of the game (especially in the first half), and he finished just 15-of-32 for 261 yards and an interception.
However, there was a period in the second half when he made several plays with his legs, completed a slew of nice throws—both on the run and from the pocket—and put together a few efficient drives.
According to Spurrier, via The State's Josh Kendall, Shaw is set to miss two to three weeks:
That means he will miss games against Kentucky, Arkansas and possibly Tennessee.
This offense isn't nearly the same with Thompson under center, but after Saturday's performance, the Gamecocks have to feel confident in his ability to manage games and tread water in the SEC until Shaw returns.
Blake Bortles, QB, Central Florida: B-
Bortles completed 25 of 36 throws for 358 yards, although much of that came on YAC (yards after catch) from his receivers. Still, he was extremely effective in the first half and made a lot of big plays.
He has to limit the turnovers, though.
The junior had a critical fumble in the fourth quarter that led to a South Carolina touchdown, a costly interception (where his receiver was open in the end zone) during UCF's comeback attempt, and finished with three overall giveaways.
He had some really nice moments, as he set a career-high in passing yards, but his mistakes were critical.
Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina: A-
Talk about running hard.
The South Carolina offensive line deserves a lot of credit for getting a major push throughout the game, but Davis hit his holes with ferocity, showcasing a gaudy blend of power and speed.
When your running back is averaging over seven yards a pop and consistently breaking off big runs, it's going to be hard to lose. The sophomore was unstoppable in this one, essentially putting the Gamecocks on his back in the second half as he put on yet another showcase for the NFL.
The only reason he was brought down to an A-minus was his fumble late in the fourth quarter.
The 3-1 Gamecocks will resume SEC play next week when they host Kentucky on Saturday, while 3-1 UCF will attempt to right the ship at Memphis.