In a few days we’ll renew our rivalry with South Carolina after a nine year hiatus, which is a real shame because it’s a fun rivalry that should be played annually. It would never be the Red River Rivalry or the Cocktail Party, but it’s a mutually-beneficial opportunity to capitalize on a spirited and profitable regional rivalry beyond each program’s natural rival.
The last time we played South Carolina I’d just started my second sophomore year and Mike O’Cain’s time had just flat run out. Toki Mcray or Jatavis Sanders would be the future, backing up the venerable fan-favorite, senior Jamie Barnette. Torry was a Ram, leaving high school teammates Chris Coleman and Ryan Hamrick, and some redshirt freshman from Belmont named Koren Robinson at receiver; Ray Robinson and Rashon Spikes were both back. Corey Smith, Brian Jamison, Edrick Smith, Levar Fisher, Clayton White, Lloyd Harrison, Tony Scott, Adrian Wilson, and Brian Williams were all back on defense.
Wow, 1999 was a long time ago. Except for that horribly misguided attempt to mock Georgia with those red helmets and silver pants (itself an offense worthy of firing O’Cain), there was ample reason for optimism that we would build on the 1998 campaign and contend for a second straight bowl.
And in Austin that first week, we certainly proffered the idea that our victories over Florida state and Syracuse the previous season were indeed indicative of a changing of the guard atop the ACC, long dominated solely by the Seminoles since their arrival in 1992. That opening game, JB & Co. held off reining Big XII Freshman of the Year (and eventual 1999 Big XII Offensive Player of the Year) Major Applewhite and his Longhorns, 23-20, in a game dominated entirely by State’s special teams, namely Torry’s little brother. Terrence emerged that night as a star, blocking two punts, one returned by Eric Leak for a touchdown and one for a safety (we blocked three punts total).
The following week was our home opener, against South Carolina, on Lake Carter-Finley: The Hurricane Dennis game. So what if it was officially a tropical storm or that it saturated the state to such a degree that it proved a large part of the reason that a few weeks later Floyd was so utterly destructive down east? No one who attended that game will ever forget that rain-soaked, windy Saturday night.
It had been one of those perfect tailgating days right up until a couple hours before game time, when Dennis made his unceremonious arrival. That was an 8pm game, and by the time we all corralled into the stadium, those that had worn them soon found their raincoats entirely unavailing and cumbersome. I missed a lot of that game from the student section, my view obstructed by the wall of water rushing off the brim of my favorite old cap – remember the old baseball hat, fitted and solid red, with only a thin white S, back before our marketing geniuses got a hold of it?
At some point during that game, for the briefest of moments, the rain relented. Then, just as suddenly, in one of those eerily surreal moments that you can never really adequately describe, the crowd’s roar resonated, starting at the old field house and flowing like the Wave, section by section, both sides of the stadium, as a wall of rain surged deliberately from one end zone towards the other – at the twenty…the ten…the five…touchdown! – finally engulfing us idiots that were actually at that game instead of dry at home, watching it on ESPN. Maybe it rained ten inches, maybe only three, during that game, but neither seems a particularly ridiculous estimate by anyone who was there.
Meanwhile, there was a game being played. It was Lou Holtz’s debut at South Carolina and we also retired Torry’s jersey at halftime. There were a total of 12 fumbles (seven lost) and a paltry 328 total yards, combined. State managed a total of 18 yards on three-of-seven passing and 78 yards on 38 carries; astonishingly enough, South Carolina had 232 total yards but failed to put up any points as, luckily, just like in Austin the week before, special teams play made the difference. A field goal and a blocked punt in the end zone accounted for all the game’s scoring, as State escaped with a 10-0 victory to improve to 2-0. The test that night wasn’t necessarily Holtz’s Gamecocks, but rather the implacable Dennis.
Ironically enough, the following week we beat William & Mary to improve to 3-0 heading to Tallahassee for the follow-up to the statement we’d made the previous season. After that start, by all indications most of us felt that Mike O’Cain should have had us in contention for the Peach Bowl, or at least another MicronPC bowl.
Instead, in retrospect he proved to be a lame duck in 1999, with no real chance for redemption. We completely derailed starting that next weekend, getting demolished in Tallahassee. A week later in Winston we got served up the finest example of a woodshed beating by any Wake Forest team that I recall in my 29 years (I’ve blacked out most of our games against them since then). The rest of the season was distinctly Mike O’Cain: sneak one out against Clemson, a thrashing at the hands of Virginia, a nail-biter in Durham, the traditional thumping in Atlanta, the expected offensive “barrage” rebound game in College Park to keep hope alive.
But after that, on a damp, chilly November Thursday night in Charlotte, Chris Coleman came up just short, and then the weekend before Thanksgiving, mercifully, after nine consecutive quarters without a touchdown, our season – and Mike O’Cain’s tenure – was finally laid to rest.
Almost a decade later, pundits don’t seem to be giving us much of a shot in Columbia, and perhaps they’re right. But based on what we’ve seen from what’s returning, South Carolina can neither run nor pass, while, hey, at least we can run (sometimes).
If we’re looking forward to 2008 with uncertainty, then South Carolina is an absolute conundrum. In mid-October last season, the Gamecocks stood at 6-1, with a victory over arguably the nation’s best team at season’s end, Georgia, and a noble effort against the eventual national champions in Baton Rouge. They were already bowl eligible and, having the edge over Georgia, it turns out they were caught looking ahead – past Tennessee and Florida – towards their first-ever SEC East title and a possible BCS bid. However, their season was over at Thanksgiving after they dropped their last five games and finished at 6-6, absent the bowl picture.
Spurrier is unquestionably an offensive genius, but it remains undetermined whether or not he has the tools in Columbia to improve an offense that ranked 77th overall in 2007 and 101st in rushing. The offensive backfield is a huge question mark, but there is at least slight reason for optimism with leading receiver Kenny McKinley returning. This might prove an interesting matchup against Mike Archer’s defense, which returns only four starters from the ACC’s 11th-ranked unit, none of which are linebackers.
If Evans goes (Lord, grant me the strength), it’s quite possible – likely – he’ll set a school record for interceptions in a single game, as South Carolina returns all four starters from the fourth-ranked defensive backfield in 2007, and a total of 10 defensive starters. Expect pressure and a variety of blitzes, and lots of them. You might also want to practice saying (and believing), “That interception was as good as a punt.”
If Wilson starts…well, I’ve lived through enough post-Philip years to not even speculate. Although, I expect we’ll be able to run against them, as we’re strongest at runningback, while Ellis Johnson’s D-Line is the weakest unit of his defense.
If nothing else, this could prove a showcase game for two teams with a lot of question marks, and O’Brien is poised to field a much-improved State team in 2008, which may or may not result in more victories. September, particularly, won’t be an easy month – South Carolina, Clemson, East Carolina, and South Florida – but a win in Columbia Thursday night, on ESPN, sure would be a nice start.