TAMPA, Fla. — Despite all South Carolina has accomplished under Steve Spurrier, the winningest coach in school history couldn’t recall a finish quite like the one the Gamecocks pulled off in the Outback Bowl.
Down a point with 3:29 to go, Connor Shaw launched a game-winning drive that Dylan Thompson finished with a touchdown pass with 11 seconds to go to beat Michigan 33-28 and give South Carolina another 11-win season and consecutive bowl victories for the first time in over a decade.
“We haven’t won one like that since I’ve been here, in eight years, so hopefully that will sort of tell us: ‘Hey, we can do that.’ It’s possible. Just hang in there,” Spurrier said Tuesday.
“I keep being reminded by a lot of my buddies, ‘We used to leave at halftime before when it was going south on us. We don’t leave anymore,” the coach added. “So, that’s encouraging.”
Spurrier, who is well-known for benching struggling QBs, called on both of his talented passers to improve to 3-4 in bowl games with the 11th-ranked Gamecocks. No coach has led them to more postseason victories.
Shaw opened with a 56-yard touchdown pass to Damiere Byrd on the third play of the game. Thompson closed with a 32-yard TD strike to Bruce Ellington with 11 seconds remaining.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever given two quarterbacks a game ball, but today I said: ‘Hey, we’ve got to give them to both you guys,’ ” Spurrier said.
South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney was quiet for much of the day but shifted momentum in the fourth quarter with a big hit on Vincent Smith that caused a fumble that the SEC defensive player of the year recovered to set up Shaw’s TD pass to Sanders for a 27-22 lead.
The TD capped a three-play sequence that began with Michigan running its second fake punt of the game, gaining 4 yards to the Wolverines 41 for what was ruled a first down, despite not appearing to be one when the officials called for a measurement. South Carolina challenged the spot, but the ruling on the field was upheld.
Clowney then leveled Smith just as he was taking the handoff, jarring the ball loose.
“I asked one of those other refs there. I said, ‘You know the ball did not touch the first-down marker,’ ” Spurrier said. “He said, ‘I know it didn’t.’ I said, ‘Well, why did he give it to them?’ and he said, ‘I don’t know.’ ”
“Clowney knocked the ball out the next play, so I’m glad they gave it to them.
… We gained about 10 or 15 yards.”
Thompson replaced Shaw during the winning drive, covering the final 43 yards after Shaw began the march from his own 30 and kept it alive with a 6-yard completion to Ace Sanders on a fourth-and-3 play. Gardner’s third TD pass of the game had given Michigan a 28-27 lead.
“I wasn’t nervous. I knew I had great guys around me, and I trusted them and just was confident,” Thompson said, adding that South Carolina’s two-quarterback setup functioned well because he and Shaw are unselfish players.
“I think it’s honestly because we have a great team. We trust each other. We pull for each other, and it’s no different with the quarterback situation,” Thompson said. “I want Connor Shaw, every time he steps on the field, to go 25 for 25 and 400 yards and five touchdowns. Every time. I think honestly, he wants the same thing for me.”
Shaw threw for 227 yards and two touchdowns after missing the Gamecocks’ regular-season finale with a left foot sprain. Thompson led the Gamecocks (11-2) to a victory at archrival Clemson, and threw for 117 yards and two TDs in the bowl.
Gardner threw for 214 yards in his fifth start for Michigan (8-5) since Denard Robinson injured his right elbow late in the season. Robinson took some snaps at quarterback and even attempted his first passes in a game since Oct. 27, but lined up mostly at running back and rushed for 100 yards on 23 carries.
“Michigan probably outplayed us overall. Gosh, they had 82 plays to our 52,” Spurrier said. “We had a lot of big plays. We had more yards than them in just 30 less plays. … It was a game that they probably played a little bit better overall, but we were about to score points, score five touchdowns.”
Sanders caught TD passes of 4 yards from Thompson and 31 yards from Shaw, who completed 18 of 26 passes before aggravating his foot injury and limping off during the final drive. The speedy receiver had nine catches for 92 yards and also scored on a 63-yard punt return – one of four plays over 50 yards yielded by Michigan.
Gardner was 18 of 36, including TD passes of 5 yards to Drew Dileo and 10 and 17 yards to Jeremy Gallon, who gave Michigan its late lead and finished with career bests of nine receptions and 145 yards. Robinson set the NCAA record for career yards rushing by a quarterback, hiking his four-year total to 4,495 – 15 more than West Virginia’s Pat White ran for from 2005-08.
“I’d rather win the game,” said Robinson, who attempted two passes in the third quarter, both incompletions, and also ran twice on plays in which he took the snap as the quarterback – a role he embraced after being injured during a loss to Nebraska.
“It was just what I thought it was going to be,” Robinson said. “I tried to make the most of it.”
South Carolina ended on a five-game winning streak that followed consecutive losses to LSU and Florida. The Gamecocks also won 11 games last season.
“It’s the first Outback Bowl I’ve ever won. Sort of personally greedy, I wanted to win one,” Spurrier said. “I’ve been lucky to win most of these in Florida, but this is the first one of these Outback Bowls.”