September 24, 2009

Gamecocks stymie No. 4 Rebels, steal spotlight

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Throughout the summer and all the way through Houston Nutt's live appearance on ESPN's SportsCenter program Thursday morning, Ole Miss said the weight of its lofty national ranking was not an extra burden to carry.

Minutes after the fourth-ranked Rebels were upset, 16-10, by South Carolina at rowdy Williams-Brice Stadium on Thursday night, at least one Ole Miss player changed his tune.

"I'm glad (the No. 4 ranking) is gone," Ole Miss offensive tackle Bradley Sowell said. "I'm glad it's gone so we can just get back to work and win some ballgames. …You can't really pay attention to that anyway. Nobody really cared. …I'm just glad it's over with so everybody can quit talking about it and just play ball now."

The ranking will most certainly be gone when the polls are updated midday Sunday. Ole Miss managed just 71 yards of first-half offense and trailed 16-3 after three anemic quarters. The Rebels got a 45-yard touchdown from Jevan Snead to Markeith Summers with 9:47 left to pull within 16-10 and had two more possessions after that. However, Ole Miss couldn't get back into the end zone.

Their final hope expired when Snead's pass intended for Shay Hodge on fourth-and-19 from the South Carolina 41-yard line fell to the grass.

"We fought hard," Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said. "We just didn't get the job done. We had some opportunities, boy. That's what really hurts. …I thought we had the momentum there at the end, but we just didn't finish it."

"It's tough to explain how it feels," said Snead, who completed just seven of 21 passes for 107 yards and a touchdown. "I definitely feel like we can play better."

Snead was sacked four times Thursday night and he was hit countless others, more often than not by South Carolina linebacker/defensive end Eric Norwood.

A sack by South Carolina defensive end Cliff Matthews, however, was probably the biggest one of the game. Matthews hit Snead on a third-and-8 from the Ole Miss 29 with 9:02 left in the third quarter. The hit jarred the ball loose, and Matthews recovered it at the Rebels' 25. Six plays later, Stephen Garcia connected with fullback Patrick DiMarco for a 2-yard touchdown pass to give the Gamecocks a 16-3 lead.

"They're definitely the best defense we've faced so far," Snead said. "They gave us some trouble in a couple of areas, but there's a lot I can do yet to improve. I have to step in and make some of those throws that I missed."

South Carolina dominated the first three quarters, though it didn't necessarily show on the scoreboard. Ole Miss struck first, getting a 42-yard field goal from Joshua Shene with 10 seconds left in the first quarter.

South Carolina's Spencer Lanning answered with the first of his three field goals midway through the second quarter to tie the game at 3-3. Ole Miss appeared to be in position to take a lead late in the second quarter, but the Rebels rolled the dice, trying a fake field goal on fourth-and-3 from the South Carolina 24. Justin Sparks' toss to Derrick Davis was perfect, but a Gamecock defender nipped Davis' foot from behind, and the Rebels' fullback stumbled one yard short of a first down.

"There's nobody there," Nutt said wistfully. "I saw nothing but grass. I thought that was six. There were just so many plays. We stopped ourselves offensively."

South Carolina ate the rest of the first-half clock before settling for a 20-yard field goal from Lanning to take a 6-3 lead.

A 69-yard pass from Garcia to Moe Brown on the Gamecocks' first possession of the second half set up a 30-yard Lanning field goal to extend South Carolina's lead to 9-3. From there, Ole Miss' defense stiffened, consistently hitting Garcia and preventing South Carolina from gaining any real offensive momentum. The Gamecocks finished with 285 yards on offense on 68 plays from scrimmage.

"When you hold them to 16 points, we're supposed to win that ballgame," Nutt said. "(Ole Miss' defense) played good enough to win. I was proud of how hard they fought."

Ole Miss had two final possessions after Summers' touchdown reception. One ended in a Tyler Campbell punt when McCluster gained just one yard on fourth-and-2 from the Ole Miss 41. The other reached the Gamecocks' 31 before the Rebels started moving backwards.

On second-and-9 from the 31, McCluster was stopped for a four-yard loss on a failed reverse attempt. On third-and-13, Snead was sacked for a one-yard loss. After an illegal substitution penalty out of a Rebel timeout, Snead's final pass to Hodge was batted away.

"We started coming on," Snead said. "Unfortunately, it was too little, too late. We got ourselves in a bad situation. We did that often throughout the night. We really hurt ourselves and we continued to do it all the way throughout the game. It's tough. When you're playing a good team, you can't be playing yourself also. On that last fourth down, they dropped a lot of people, but that's a throw I can make and that's something I'll continue to work on."

"They hung on the rope and we're going to get better from here," Nutt said. "These guys won't give up. They'll keep fighting."

Ole Miss wraps up its two-game SEC road trip on Oct. 3 at Vanderbilt before returning home for a three-game homestand that includes dates with No. 3 Alabama, UAB and Arkansas.

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