Gamecocks seize their opportunity

COLUMBIA --- It was unprecedented. It was decisive. It was euphoric.


And in the eyes of South Carolina's head ball coach, it was fate.

"I think this game was meant to be," Steve Spurrier said after the Gamecocks claimed the biggest victory in the 118-year history of the program with an emphatic 35-21 triumph over No. 1 Alabama.

"That was our rallying cry, 'Let's give fate a chance,' " Spurrier said. "If fate is going to smile on South Carolina, then we have to give it a chance. Who knows? If you give fate a chance, something big may happen."

Something big happened all right. The Gamecocks had the chance to become the second university in history to post wins against No. 1 teams in basketball (Kentucky), baseball (Arizona State) and football in the same calendar year. Big, bad Alabama, on a 19-game winning streak, would be the biggest challenge of all.

A South Carolina program that has been desperately striving for acceptance in the toughest football conference in America announced its candidacy for a bona fide title run. After manhandling the reputed best team in the nation, the Gamecocks got the postgame endorsement of Alabama's battered quarterback, Greg McElroy.

"We'll see you guys again," McElroy told his South Carolina counterpart, Stephen Garcia, meaning a rematch in the Southeastern Conference championship game.

Saturday's outcome had a title feel about it. But that feeling should evoke caution in a program that historically hasn't been smiled on by fate.

The Alabama win evoked memories of a similarly massive 1984 victory over Florida State that moved the Gamecocks to No. 2 in the country. A week later they flushed it all away with a crushing loss at Navy.

In 2007, the Gamecocks climbed to 6-1 and No. 6 in the nation, only to lose at home to Vanderbilt and spark a five-game losing streak.

Spurrier knows that this team's ultimate fate will be how they respond to this moment.

"Hopefully it will mean something we can build on," Spurrier said. "But then again if we go to Kentucky and Vanderbilt and get beat we will look back and say, 'Man that was a lot of fun that one night in Columbia.'"

But what a night it was.

It was a breakout performance from quarterback Garcia, who was benched two weeks again near the end of the loss to Auburn.

It was a statement performance by receiver Alshon Jeffery, who is drawing closer every game to Georgia's A.J. Green as the biggest game-changing receiver in the SEC.

It was a standout performance by the defense, which excelled in pass rush, pass coverage and making Alabama's Heisman Trophy running back a complete non-factor.

But more than anything it was a moment of deliverance for a program and fan base that has been craving this kind of satisfaction for pretty much ever.

"Had to be one of the best days for our university ever," said Spurrier.

You could read that in the ecstatic faces and squeals of the more than 80,000 partisan Gamecocks as the clock dripped down to zero.

As Alabama's effort dissolved into desperate futility in the closing minutes, the starved Gamecocks faithful rose in delirium.

"You came to the wrong place!" shouted Melvin Ingram of the program that brought it's 19-game winning streak to die at Williams-Brice Stadium.

Garcia couldn't get enough of the atmosphere, lingering until he was the last South Carolina player on the field.

"Unbelievable feeling," said the embattled quarterback, who has grown thick skin under Spurrier's demanding reign. "I don't even know what to say right now."

The scoreboard said it all. They gave fate a chance and were rewarded.

Every time it looked like fate might turn against the Gamecocks, they stepped up to seize the moment.

Fall behind 3-0 on the opening drive ... answer with touchdowns on three consecutive possessions.

Yield a potentially meltdown inducing safety ... answer with a 15-play, 82-yard touchdown drive.

Suffer a fluke fourth-quarter interception in your own territory with a shaky seven-point lead ... answer with a stop on a fake field goal and a clinching scoring drive.

Every time the No. 1 team threatened, South Carolina rebutted. In the postgame euphoria, Gamecocks players suggested giving a game ball to "fate."

"I'm accepting for fate," Spurrier interjected, keeping the treasure for himself after moving into second in all-time SEC victories behind Bear Bryant.

Spurrier admitted it might be his proudest regular-season moment in a career filled with achievement. Was it the biggest?

"Championships always are the biggest," he said.

Revel in the moment, Gamecocks. Fate has spoken again. It can be fleeting, like the basketball win over Kentucky. Or it can be lasting like the baseball momentum after Arizona State.

Which road fate follows is in their hands. The Gamecocks have to make it mean something.