BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- The Connecticut Huskies made a statement in the Southeastern Conference's backyard, while Steve Spurrier and South Carolina left embarrassed by what the coach described as a "sad, sad effort."
Andre Dixon rushed for 126 yards and a touchdown and resilient Connecticut ended a trying season with a 20-7 victory over the Gamecocks in the Papajohns.com Bowl on Saturday.
"I was a little worried that the season had been so long and so tough on them that I didn't see a whole lot of emotion from them," Huskies coach Randy Edsall said. "But I guess they were just saving it up for today.
"I told them in the locker room (after the game) that they're never going to be around something like this for the rest of their lives. In all my years of coaching, I have never been around a team like this. It's hard to describe unless you've been through the ride with us."
It was a choppy one. The Huskies (8-5) are 3-1 in bowl games since moving up to Division I-A (now FBS) in 2002, but this was their first win over an SEC team — and it came in the powerhouse league's home base. They won their final three regular-season games and overcame the October stabbing death of cornerback Jasper Howard to reach a bowl.
"We talked about earning respect," Edsall said. "We came down here against an SEC team in the heart of one of the passionate areas in the country for college football. We wanted to be able to show what kind of program that we have, and I think we did that very well."
UConn won't get much argument from the Gamecocks (7-6). The nation's 95th-rated pass defense throttled South Carolina and quarterback Stephen Garcia while the offense relied on Dixon's 33 carries to control the ball.
The senior said he and his teammates drew motivation from Howard's memory. He was killed in a fight outside a school-sponsored dance Oct. 18.
"This is a really special team," Dixon said. "It says something about our character and how strong of a family UConn is and how tight we are. It's just amazing when 105 guys come together and commit themselves to doing something great and then they do it.
"Before the game, I told the guys, 'I challenge you to put everything together and do it for Jazz.' I think that's definitely what happened."
Dixon was the Most Valuable Player and joined teammate Jordan Todman as 1,000-yard rushers, the first time two UConn backs have surpassed that mark in the same season.
Garcia completed just 16 of 38 passes for 129 yards while gaining 56 yards on 15 carries. He lost a fumble, was intercepted once and didn't get much help. An emotional Garcia called the Gamecocks' performance "very disappointing."
He said they never got it going, "and it shows on the scoreboard."
UConn had a pristine performance, with zero penalties. Linebacker Lawrence Wilson called it "the most complete game we've played all year."
The Gamecocks avoided their first shutout in three seasons on Brian Maddox's 2-yard touchdown run with 3:24 left. Their only other possession ending in UConn territory resulted in a botched field goal attempt.
It was another difficult postseason chapter for the Gamecocks, who are now 4-11 in bowl games and 1-3 under Spurrier. They have been outscored 51-17 the past two years including a loss to Iowa in last season's Outback Bowl.
This one was marred by dropped passes, a missed interception and costly penalties that kept a mostly garnet-and-black clad crowd subdued — and steadily shrinking by the fourth quarter. Spurrier couldn't blame them for leaving early.
"The first thing I want to do is apologize to about 30,000 Gamecocks who came here to see a football game, and we couldn't put one on," he said. "I thought we were ready to play. But obviously our offense was very sad and our defense wasn't as good as it's been most of the time. We thoroughly got beat by a better team, a better disciplined team."
Leading receiver Alshon Jeffery was held to three catches for 28 yards, all in the first half. Tailback Kenny Miles had just six carries for 24 yards.
"We missed things the whole day. Passes, tackles," Spurrier said. "I'm embarrassed. Blame me. It was a sad, sad effort, especially the offense."
Dixon's 10-yard touchdown with 13:12 left effectively put the game away. Jesse Simpson had set the Huskies up at the Gamecocks' 29-yard line by forcing Garcia to fumble, knocking it away from behind at the end of a run.
A South Carolina team that pounded Clemson with 58 runs in a win to finish the regular season finished with 26 rushes for 76 yards.
UConn jumped ahead 13-0. Kashif Moore snagged the ball one-handed down the right sideline for a 37-yard touchdown catch from Zach Frazer in the first quarter. Dave Teggard then hit field goals of 33 and 44 yards. The first kick was set up when Garcia was stopped on a sneak on fourth-and-1 from South Carolina's 32.
South Carolina didn't even manage its initial first down until midway through the second quarter, and that took Garcia converting a third-and-16.
South Carolina's sloppy play continued into the second half. Running into the kicker and roughing the passer calls helped UConn keep its first drive alive for more than seven minutes, though it ended with a fumble.
Then, cornerback Akeem Auguste dropped an easy interception with nothing between him and the end zone.
"There were a lot of plays we didn't make and a lot of people who didn't make them," Auguste said. "I had one for six (points), and I didn't make it. I don't want to put our team down but it's just heartbreaking. There's no excuse for how we played today."