CLEMSON, S.C. - Steve Spurrier spent the season searching for a signature win. He got it at perhaps the most critical time of his two years with the Gamecocks.
Spurrier and his team battled through a year of close losses to powerhouse Southeastern Conference teams Auburn, Tennessee, Arkansas and Florida. A defeat to Clemson would've been the Gamecocks' fifth in a row in the rivalry and would have signaled another offseason of questions and concern over Spurrier's program.
Instead, South Carolina showed the toughness Spurrier had longed for, rallying from two touchdowns behind for a 31-28 victory.
"All these bad things kept happening. But the guys never quit," Spurrier said.
"Maybe one day," the coach said, "we can look back at this and say this was the game that propelled us."
For a long while, it looked like a replay of every bad break and bounce that has cost South Carolina this year. Driving for a go-ahead score just before halftime, quarterback Blake Mitchell was intercepted when Gaines Adams deflected the ball to teammate Jock McKissic, who ran 82 yards for the touchdown and a 21-14 lead.
Early in the third quarter and still trailing by a touchdown, a frustrated Spurrier chose to go for it on 4th-and-2 from his 39. Clemson knocked down Mitchell's pass and talented freshman C.J. Spiller made the decision look worse moments later, rushing around the left side for a 31-yard scoring run to push the Tigers lead to 28-14.
Even after the Gamecocks tied it, luck wasn't on their side. Defensive lineman Nathan Pepper had intercepted Clemson's Will Proctor and had clear sailing to the goal line. But as he prepared for a celebratory leap, Clemson tailback James Davis caught up to force the fumble and the ball dribbled out of bounds in the end zone.
Through it all, South Carolina did not fold.
Mitchell led three scoring drives, two ending on Mike Davis scoring runs and a third with Ryan Succop's game-winning field goal from 35 yards.
"It's a big win," Mitchell said. "Hopefully, that'll carry over to the bowl and to next year.... It was about time we won one of the close ones."
Spurrier remembers that his very successful 12-season run at Florida really took flight when his first group in 1990 won at powerful Alabama, 17-13. That victory, he said, proved to the Gators they could compete against the country's best. Spurrier hopes his Gamecocks take the same lesson away from their first Death Valley victory in 10 years.
"Sometimes a game like this can do it," he said. "Only time can tell."
A week ago, Spurrier was deflecting Internet reports he would be the top target for Miami's open job. Again, Saturday, he said he's at South Carolina to succeed with the Gamecocks.
Spurrier began increasing expectations for next year the week after South Carolina was beaten 17-16 at Florida. The Gators blocked three kicks in that one to hand Spurrier, with a 3-5 league mark, his first losing season in the SEC. But Spurrier gleefully announced star wideout Sidney Rice would return for his junior season and that maybe the Gamecocks could shoot for the conference title in 2007.
This year is not yet complete. The Gamecocks expect to get one of the SEC's eight bowl slots, most likely the Music City Bowl in Nashville or the Liberty Bowl in Memphis.
Win or lose this postseason, Spurrier and his players see things on the rise.
Syvelle Newton, one of the handful of South Carolina seniors, expects the Clemson win to inspire next year's group to bigger things.
"When you know how it feels to win a big game, when you play those games, you're going to want to fight harder to feel that same joy," Newton said. "With the team they're going to have next year, all I can say is watch out for them."