The term "statement win" gets thrown around a lot in sports. The South Carolina Gamecocks played their way into a true statement win today in taking down the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide. In a game rife with emotion, as the team returned home for the first time after the tragic loss of Kenny McKinley, South Carolina accomplished the inconceivable. They beat the juggernaut Alabama Crimson Tide soundly, 35-21.
Save a lone misplay by Stephen Garcia resulting in a safety, South Carolina played an absolutely perfect game, and Garcia more than made up for his mishap.
From the opening kickoff, it seemed as if South Carolina was playing with more intensity on both sides of the ball, and had a scheme to stop everything Alabama was trying to do. Steve Spurrier's play-calling on offense was magnificent, Garcia made all the throws, and Marcus Lattimore converted on crucial short yardage plays. This wasn't some lucky upset; South Carolina dominated this game throughout and when things started to get tight, they responded and hit back even harder.
I think I'd have been laughed out of the room if I had told you prior to the game that South Carolina would more than double Alabama's rushing yardage. But that is just what the Gamecocks did, in a very balanced attack that had Alabama's young defense guessing all day long.
South Carolina played a mistake-free first half that had them in control going to the locker room up 21-9. However, we had seen this story before, and Alabama has always answered the bell under Saban. Could South Carolina withstand Alabama's half time adjustments?
Though it seemed like the answer would be an emphatic "No" for several moments in the third quarter, South Carolina not only withstood Alabama's second half punches, they themselves punched back even harder.
Stephen Garcia played like the best quarterback in the entire SEC today. He looked better against Alabama than the vaunted Ryan Mallett. He went an incredible 17-20 in this game with three touchdowns and one interception that wasn't even his fault.
Perhaps more importantly though, he stayed cool and calm just when it looked like he was about to have a mental breakdown.
On South Carolina's opening drive of the second half, Chris Culliver muffed the kickoff, putting South Carolina deep in their own territory. On the first shotgun snap, the ball went high and hard and Garcia couldn't corral it. He recovered the ball around the 3-yard line and instead of either falling down or turning to attempt to throw the ball away, he inexplicably tossed the ball through the end zone for a safety.
This was the kind of bizarre mental mistake that Garcia has been known for and perhaps Alabama had been waiting for. Nick Saban had to believe he was watching the beginning of a meltdown by his opponent's quarterback. I think every Alabama fan, and perhaps a majority of South Carolina fans, were expecting Garcia to turn into a basket case from that point on as South Carolina wasted away another shot at bringing the football program to national prominence.
Alabama punctuated the mistake by tacking on three points with a field goal (the kicking game had been beyond shaky for Alabama).
Then the improbable happened.
Instead of wilting under the pressure and his gaffe, Stephen Garcia proceeded to lead South Carolina on an 85-yard, 15-play drive that took up 7:55 and resulted in a 1-yard Marcus Lattimore touchdown run. Garcia looked cool, calm, and collected as he hit on clutch throw after clutch throw, when it became clear that Alabama could not cover Alshon Jeffery. The drive not only stopped the bleeding, but it gave a defense that was beginning to get a little gassed a breather.
And Garcia was not done showing his new-found poise under pressure and dire circumstances.
After a Devonte Holloman busted coverage got Alabama right back in the game, it looked to all be coming apart again for Stephen Garcia, as he hit a pass that Alshon Jeffery bobbled straight into the hands of Alabama defender Will Lowery. It was by no means Garcia's fault, but you just knew it would rattle him.
However, Alabama perhaps got desperate in their ensuing drive and instead of kicking a medium-long field goal, they tried a fake kick, that everyone in the stadium likely saw coming. South Carolina's defense surely did, as even though the pass was dropped, the receiver had four Gamecocks ready to take him down for a minimal gain even if he did catch it. It was a rare gaffe from Saban that will likely be questioned by a few brave souls this week who dare question Saban.
Then Garcia and company capitalized and drove the nails into the coffin. In a drive that involved a 4th-and-inches conversion at their own 35-yard line, South Carolina drove the ball down the field and wore down Alabama's defense. The highlight was an Alshon Jeffery one-handed circus catch that set up a Marcus Lattimore 2-yard run for a touchdown. Garcia looked like the veteran SEC signal-caller he was supposed to be, when he had every reason in the world to come apart.
Before this game, could South Carolina fans have had the confidence to say, "When the chips are down, and everything is starting to turn against him, Stephen Garcia will stand tall and make the plays"? Well that's exactly what happened here today in South Carolina's biggest win ever.
There will be a lot more to say about this game, and the implications of this game. For now though, South Carolina fans should just savor the moment for a couple days.