South Carolina Beats Back Kentucky, Gives Wildcats First Loss of Season

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) -- South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier spoiled Kentucky's perfect start and found himself right where he loves to be -- in the thick of the Southeastern Conference race.

"Our guys are starting to believe the ball can keep bouncing our way," Spurrier said.

It certainly did Thursday night in the 11th-ranked Gamecocks' 38-23 win over previously undefeated No. 8 Kentucky.

Defensive end Eric Norwood tied an NCAA record with two touchdown returns and Spurrier stayed unbeaten against the Wildcats (5-1, 1-1 SEC).

While Spurrier was excited with South Carolina's eighth-straight victory over Kentucky, he brushed aside talk of what could be ahead in the SEC race during the season's second half.

"It's way too early for that," Spurrier cautioned.

Not true, coach, not with the Gamecocks (5-1, 3-1) poised for the top 10 and the lead in the SEC Eastern Division.

This was supposed to be the Wildcats' chance to prove themselves worthy league contenders and finally give the sharp-tongued Spurrier some long overdue payback.

While at Florida, Spurrier beat Kentucky 73-7 in 1994, then 65-0 two years later. Even this summer, Spurrier rankled Kentucky fans with his words: "We thought we did something big beating Clemson, then Kentucky beat them, also." The Wildcats beat Clemson 28-20 in the Music City Bowl last December.

With both teams ranked for the first time when facing each other, Spurrier got the best of Kentucky for the 15th time.

"It's extremely disappointing to be in a position to go two and oh in the league and now we're way back in the pack," Brooks said.

It was the poorest performance of the season for Kentucky (5-1, 1-1), which was held to half its SEC-leading average of 46.6 points a game.

Andre' Woodson, the hero of the Wildcats' surprising start, was pressured into several errors.

He fumbled after Jonathan Williams' sack on Kentucky's first series, and Norwood picked it up for a 2-yard TD return that put the Gamecocks ahead 7-0. Then with the teams tied at 10 in the second quarter, Woodson drove Kentucky to the 9, but threw his second interception of the season to end the threat.

The mistakes continued after halftime. Woodson's lateral attempt to fullback John Conner was muffed, and this time Norwood grabbed it and ran 53 yards for his second score and a 24-10 lead.

Norwood's touchdown returns matched an NCAA record accomplished three times before, the last by Southern Methodist's Alvin Nnabuife against Nevada in 2004.

Norwood had a blocked punt that changed the momentum in South Carolina's 38-21 win over Mississippi State last Saturday. His play is even more critical since the Gamecocks have lost defensive starters in linebacker Jasper Brinkley and lineman Nathan Pepper since Sept. 15.

"I knew it was time to step up," Norwood said. "When they went down, I think it was pretty evident that I had to do it along with the other guys on defense."

Woodson finished 23 of 40 for 227 yards, but was sacked three times. Rafael Little had his fifth 100-yard game of the year with 135 yards rushing.

None of it was enough.

The Wildcats closed to 31-23 on Woodson's 6-yard touchdown pass to Steve Johnson with 6:59 left, but Cory Boyd's 27-yard TD catch on South Carolina's next drive secured the Gamecocks' eighth straight win in the series.

"We definitely made a lot of mistake, especially me personally," Woodson said. "It's something we haven't been doing all year."

Freshman Chris Smelley, making his second straight start for South Carolina, completed 17 of 30 for 256 yards and two touchdowns.

Not even some pregame rain could stop the festive atmosphere at Williams-Brice Stadium.

NFL coaching great -- and long-ago Gamecock -- Dan Reeves took part in the opening coin flip. Several former South Carolina players currently in the pros, like Philadelphia defensive back Sheldon Brown and Minnesota receivers Troy Williamson and Sidney Rice, were introduced to the crowd in the opening half.

They all saw what Spurrier has talked about since the end of last season: he wants his guys to think like they can challenge for an SEC title.

With this victory, that's a goal within reach. The Gamecocks, who already knocked off SEC heavyweight Georgia last month, should move into the top 10 for the first time since 2001.

South Carolina's next conference game comes Oct. 20 against Vanderbilt. Then the Gamecocks travel to Tennessee and Arkansas, before closing the league schedule at home in what could be an Eastern Division showdown against defending national champion Florida on Nov. 10.

Kentucky's Brooks isn't ready to give up on his team's rise. The Wildcats had hoped to go 6-0 for the first time since Bear Bryant's eventual SEC champs started 10-0 in 1950.

Now that that's over, Brooks is ready for his team to get back to work.

"I still believe we're a very, very good football team," the coach said.


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