It all had an unnervingly familiar feel to South Carolina teams when, with a 17-6 lead lasting late into the third quarter of the Independence Bowl, the Gamecocks began to let the Miami Hurricanes back into the game. A touchdown and the two-point conversion cut the South Carolina lead to three. Miami would drive back into South Carolina territory on its next possession and attempt a long field goal -- but miss.
The Gamecocks would soon enough punt the ball back to Miami, but the deja vu was already in full force by then. Three times this season, South Carolina had led by two scores at least once in the fourth quarter and lost -- part of the reason that they were in the Independence Bowl to begin with. So even when the Gamecocks forced a fumble late in the fourth quarter, and Dylan Thompson ran the ball in for a touchdown three plays later to make the lead 24-14, Gamecock fans couldn't relax.
"@TeamSpeedKills: Good. Dylan scores the (likely) capper" you forgot about our history of defense— Joey DeStefano (@heavyd9564) December 27, 2014
Sure enough, Miami scored a quick touchdown to move back within a field goal with a little more than two minutes left. But then, a funny thing happened. After throwing on the first play of the last drive, Steve Spurrier ignored his worst instincts and began running the ball. And between them, Mike Davis and Thompson ran out the last bit of clock, and the Gamecocks managed to win a game they should have.
Which ensured a few things. First, Spurrier avoided only the second losing season of his college career and the first since his inaugural season at Duke. And second, South Carolina avoided its first losing season since 2003 -- an 11-year stretch that is by far the golden age of Gamecocks football. South Carolina has also won four consecutive bowl games, a record for the school and one of the better streaks in the nation.
And for a season that was filled with disappointment and problems with the emerging recruiting class, there were the first glimmers of hope for 2015. Pharoh Cooper, who will be back for at least another year, was once again a dynamic force on the field. (Cooper had nine catches for 170 yards and a touchdown.) And while the defense was far from stellar, it was better against an quality Miami offense that it had been against lesser opponents in the year. If the defense is indeed starting to grow up and there are enough complementary pieces for Cooper to remain a factor, then next year might not be all that bad for the Gamecocks.
But all of that is for tomorrow. For now, the Gamecocks avoided going from a disappointing season to one that would have almost completely derailed the progress Steve Spurrier has made. There's still a long way to go before the glory years can be fully reclaimed, but winning an important game with a significant lead in the fourth quarter is a start.