Ninth-ranked South Carolina nearly slipped in its season opener on Thursday, but the Gamecocks escaped with a gritty 17-13 win in a game that could have gone either way in the fourth quarter.
Vanderbilt coach James Franklin referred to the game as "our Super Bowl" earlier in the week. Vanderbilt fans bought in, with a near-sellout of 38,393 fans mostly clad in black despite off-and-on rainstorms earlier in the night and a Tennessee Titans' exhibition game just a few minutes down the road.
Dudley Field was rocking and rolling, and the Commodores had a chance for the upset as they led late in the fourth quarter. But South Carolina's backfield duo of Marcus Lattimore and Connor Shaw refused to let it happen.
South Carolina held on thanks to Lattimore's 23 carries for 110 yards and two touchdowns, and Shaw's 14 rushing attempts for 92 more even though he played through a painful shoulder contusion suffered late in the first half. As for Lattimore, it was his first game back from the knee injury that ended his season a year ago.
The Gamecocks pulled out the victory despite just 67 passing yards - a remarkably small number for a team coached by Steve Spurrier.
Twenty of those passing yards came on the final scoring drive on a pass from Shaw to tight end Justice Cunningham, who was belted by Andre Hal but held on for a first-down reception. Hal was flagged for a 15-yard penalty on the hit, moving the ball to the Vandy 17.
"(Shaw) had a gutsy performance tonight on the field and that's all you can say. We weren't throwing or catching real well, so we had to run the quarterback and run Marcus (Lattimore). That was about our offense and Justice Cunningham's catch. That's about it," Spurrier said.
Vandy's Jordan Matthews gave the Gamecocks fits all evening, hauling in eight passes for 147 yards and a score. And Matthews nearly made one more huge play on the final drive to give Vanderbilt a final crack at a win.
The game was tied 10-all at half, and Vanderbilt opened the second-half scoring with Carey Spear's 44-yard field goal. It gave the Commodores their first lead of the game with 6:02 left in the third quarter.
But the Gamecocks punched back as Shaw engineered a nine-play, 66-yard drive punctuated by Lattimore's 1-yard touchdown run. Adam Yates' point-after was good, and the Gamecocks led by four again.
With just under two minutes left, Vanderbilt had the ball with a 4th-and-7 from its 43, and quarterback Jordan Rodgers lofted a pass to Matthews deep down the right sideline. Matthews couldn't corral it as D.J. Swearinger appeared to grab his wrist as the ball arrived.
"I'm not going to really comment on any calls," Matthews said. "The bottom line is that we didn't get it done. I've got to get more open for Jordan Rodgers and I've got to make a play. I'll leave it up to everybody else to speculate on calls. I don't do that."
Thanks to two Gamecock turnovers in South Carolina territory, Vanderbilt held the ball nearly all of the first 10 minutes of the game. After one of them, Vandy marched to the Carolina 5-yeard line, where it had first-and-goal. But linebacker Shaq Wilson intercepted Rodgers' third-down screen pass and rumbled to the Vanderbilt 49.
From there, South Carolina made it look easy with a two-play scoring drive.
Shaw found daylight on a keeper to the Vandy 29, and then Lattimore ran through big hole on the right side and eluded Vandy's secondary, giving Carolina a 7-0 lead with 4:55 left in the first quarter.
After a three-and-out by the Commodores on the next series, USC marched 66 yards in 14 plays and extended the lead to 10-0 on Yates' 20-yard field goal.
Just when Carolina seemed to have knocked all the energy out of the rain-soaked crowd at Vanderbilt Stadium, Matthews found a seam in Carolina's zone and Rodgers hit him to complete a 78-yard scoring play to cut the lead to three.
"(South Carolina) gave us a look that we'd been seeing in film, and I gave Jordan a chance to make a play," Rodgers said. "We've been really good at that combination and that practice this spring and summer and it was a focus."
After Carolina's three-and-out, Vandy drove deep into Gamecock territory and tied the game with Spear's 25-yard field goal.
Spurrier has at times disparaged Vanderbilt over a lack of competitiveness through the years. But this Vandy bunch earned his respect.
"I told coach Franklin after the game that he has a fast team, a well-conditioned team. They (Vanderbilt) played very hard and certainly had a chance to win the game," he said.
NOTES: Shaw (nine carries, 59 yards in the first half) left with about three minutes left in the half with a shoulder contusion, and was replaced by Dylan Thompson. ... Vanderbilt's Josh Grady's first career catch went for 32 yards, setting up Vandy's first-half field goal. ... Spurrier is now 22-1 all-time in season openers. The Gamecocks have won 13 straight season debuts dating back to 2000.