The hiccup at the end couldn't wipe away the fact - South Carolina is going to a bowl game.
Definitely, this time.
The Gamecocks sent 26 seniors out with a win in their last home game on Saturday, a 34-21 victory over Arkansas clinching a bowl trip after a full year and change of waiting and replaying the what-might-have-been scenarios. USC will be heading somewhere for the holidays, even after a foolish penalty in the last two minutes of the game took some of the shine off the accomplishment.
USC free safety Chris Culliver was ejected for fighting in the closing seconds, meaning he'll sit the first half of next week's tilt at No. 4 Florida. The Razorbacks attempted an onside kick after cutting the lead to 13 points but USC recovered, and in the ensuing scrum, Culliver was caught throwing punches.
"OK, with about four minutes left in the game, I was starting to like this game," coach Steve Spurrier said. "Our No. 17 starts swinging at a guy on the onside kick -- unbelievably selfish play on his part. So it was a sad ending for a good game."
The Gamecocks (7-3, 4-3 SEC), kept out of a bowl after getting their sixth win in 2007 and then losing five straight games, are going somewhere in 2008. Where they go is yet to be determined, but many said that seven wins is only part of what they hope to accomplish - seven is nice, but nine would be a lot nicer.
"Now we can just build up, every game we can build to a better bowl," said wide receiver Kenny McKinley, who played his last game at Williams-Brice Stadium and gave the announced crowd of 80, 290 a treat by becoming the Gamecocks' career leader in receiving yardage. "Hopefully we're playing in January sometime."
Despite Culliver's misstep, the Gamecocks swarmed the field wearing wide smiles afterward. The magnificent seventh wasn't pretty at a lot of times, but it was a win, and that's what USC was after.
"It feels great!," bellowed tight end Jared Cook, who caught a 66-yard touchdown. "Great!"
USC kept the celebration somewhat muted last week, although Spurrier told his team not to take its sixth win for granted. The Gamecocks enjoyed it, but knew a seventh would book their trip.
Jordin Lindsey intercepted Casey Dick on the last play of the third quarter and rumbled 40 yards for a first down at the Arkansas 15-yard-line. Stephen Garcia found McKinley for a fade-route touchdown two plays later and USC broke open a one-possession game.
Fleeced out of momentum gained from a touchdown that made the score 20-14, the Razorbacks found themselves trailing 27-14 after Lindsey's and McKinley's grabs. USC added another touchdown and played keep-away for the duration, giving up a late TD but never giving anyone a reason to fear a letdown.
"We had a big speech on the sideline, saying somebody had to step up and make a play," Lindsey said. "We had to have somebody who was going to stand up. Luckily, I was the one who made the play."
"Jordy Lindsey made the play that turned it all around. Jordy Lindsey, what a play," Spurrier said. "Not many guys can jump up and intercept that pass. They usually knock it down or something like that. That thing stuck."
The Gamecocks came out against the Razorbacks (4-6, 1-5) ready to end the suspense early. Spurrier stuck to his word of playing quarterbacks Chris Smelley and Garcia, rotating them on every snap for the majority of the game, and Garcia immediately got USC in position.
McKinley broke Sterling Sharpe's career yardage record on the second play of the game, catching a screen from Garcia and swivel-hipping 30 yards downfield. Smelley checked back in and overthrew McKinley on a screen from the 14, so Garcia entered, took the snap and charged midfield for a quick six points.
USC made it 10-0 when Ryan Succop blasted a 54-yard field goal, tying the second-longest distance of his career. But with a comfortable lead and the chance to add to it, the Gamecocks' offense began misfiring.
Smelley and Garcia continued to rotate on almost every snap, sticking to Spurrier's plan. The routine favored Smelley, who finished 9-of-19 for 148 yards and a touchdown.
Garcia ran five times for 35 yards, including the first touchdown, and also threw a TD to McKinley. But he was a meager 4-of-11 for 71 yards and an interception, never seeming comfortable under center.
Spurrier said he put in the switch because each QB was having trouble reading signals and operating the game plan, so he would simply send in a fresh play with a fresh QB on almost every down. The Gamecocks got their running game unstuck, rushing for 132 yards, but outside of McKinley (seven catches for 130 yards), no receiver distinguished himself.
"Wasn't really a big deal," Garcia said. "I don't think (the rotation) made that big of a difference. There was a few passes that I wish I would have had back, like when I overthrew Kenny when he was wide-open."
The offense was hitting and missing when Succop returned to his recent struggles by hooking a 25-yard field goal. Two plays later, Dick unleashed a deep spiral downfield, watching Jarius Wright race past Culliver for an untouched 70-yard touchdown.
Ahead 10-7, USC responded when Smelley found Cook on a crossing pattern. The big tight end hit the left sideline and avoided a defender attempting to push him out of bounds, racing for another long TD and a 17-7 lead.
Succop made it 20-7 by converting a 37-yard try on the first drive of the second half but Arkansas plinked its way downfield for a touchdown after 15 plays. Only ahead 20-14 with 4:42 to play, USC again stalled out and again turned to its stellar defense to save the day.
Lindsey intercepted, Garcia hit McKinley and Mike Davis added a 13-yard spinning touchdown run in the fourth quarter for the win. The Razorbacks, even without SEC leading rusher Michael Smith, who sat out the second half with a shoulder injury, never gave up but couldn't pull even.
The reason? The Gamecocks' SEC top-ranked D, which held the Hogs to 6 yards in the first quarter and just 303 more for the duration. The total was inflated because of Arkansas' late touchdown drive, but several players had outstanding games - Eric Norwood had nine tackles, including three sacks; Darian Stewart, Marvin Sapp and Culliver had seven stops each and three Gamecocks (Lindsey, Addison Williams and Stoney Woodson) intercepted passes.
"Other than having three busted assignments on the play, I thought it was a great play," defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said of Lindsey's grab. "Just great reaction to the ball."
The Gamecocks headed into the evening with good feelings and deserved congratulations, even with the chagrin of Culliver's penalty looming over the end. USC finished a 5-2 home schedule and clinched a postseason destination, which can only improve in the next two games.
"We're happy to beat Arkansas and get 7-3 with two games left," Spurrier said. "We're still, I think, a very healthy team, so we got a chance to be very competitive in our last two."