COLUMBIA - Quarterback Jake Bentley accounted for three touchdowns and running back A.J. Turner became the first University of South Carolina rusher to go over 100 yards as a late defensive stop preserved a 34-27 Gamecock victory over Vanderbilt on Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium.
With the win, South Carolina gained bowl eligibility for the 12th time in 13 seasons, running its overall record to 6-2 while improving to 4-2 in the Southeastern Conference heading into a showdown at undefeated and SEC East-leading Georgia next Saturday.
South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp looked at becoming bowl eligible as more of an expectation than an accomplishment for the Gamecock program and really did not put much emphasis on the upcoming game against Georgia, which ran its record to 8-0 and 5-0 with a 42-7 thrashing of Florida on Saturday.
"We'll take it as the next ball game," said Muschamp, a former walk-on safety for Georgia from 1991-94. "At the end of the day, our guys know that it's an important game. They understand it's a big ball game against a very good team. So I don't think me standing in front of our team and saying it is going to make any difference. At the end of the day, they know it's a big game and that we need to prepare extremely well. That's what we'll do."
Trailing 34-27, Vandy took over at its 33 with 2:48 on the clock. A pass interference penalty against Chris Lammons and four Kyle Shurmur completions for 33 yards helped to move the ball to the USC 40. The drive stalled there as Shurmur, the Vandy quarterback, missed on his final two pass attempts, turning the ball over on downs with 1:10 to go and sealing the win for USC.
Vandy's beleaguered defense, which came in surrendering more than 240 yards rushing and 413 yards of total offense per game, gave up 386 yards to the Gamecocks, including 212 yards rushing on 37 attempts. The Commodores, behind Shurmur's 333 yards and three touchdowns on 27-of-49 passing, ended with 440 yards total offense.
"I'm really proud of our football team today," Muschamp said. "Vanderbilt did some special things, especially offensively. We didn't play very well defensively, but I'm going to give Vanderbilt some credit on that. They kept us on the edges as far as quick screens and edge run game. That was disappointing. You have to give them some credit, too. Kyle Shurmur competed extremely hard in this game. He had some really nice throws."
Bentley and Turner proved to be a good 1-2 punch for USC, with Bentley finding success through the air and on the ground. The sophomore signal caller hit on 19 of 29 passes for 174 yards and one score, on a 36-yard pass to wide receiver Shi Smith, and ran for 47 yards on six attempts, scoring two touchdowns. Fittingly, No. 19 ran for 19 yards on his first career rushing touchdown and added an 11-yard scoring run.
"Offensively, I think we stayed balanced moving the ball," Muschamp said. "I think we ran the ball extremely well, especially there at the end of the game with 1:18 on the clock to finish the ball game. That was really important. That's over 200 yards rushing or right at it the last three SEC ball games. That's a huge improvement from where we've been.
"We need to be more efficient in the throwing game and some things. We had a couple of reads there that were missed, whether it was the receiver or Jake. I have to go back and look at it. I thought our protection was good. It was a good, hard-fought ball game."
Turner followed up an 86-yard rushing effort in a 15-9 win over Tennessee with another strong outing agasinst the Commodores. The sophomore from Clifton, Va., ran for a career-high 121 yards on 15 carries, scoring on a 1-yard dive, and added four receptions for 24 yards.
"A.J. Turner ran extremely hard, again I'm extremely proud of A.J.," Muschamp said. "You see the power that he has when he's able to run through tackles."
The game started with a bit of one-upmanship as USC answered a 6-play, 75-yard Vanderbilt scoring drive, capped by a 9-yard Shurmur pass to running back Khari Blasingame, by going the same distance in five plays. Bentley completed three of four passes for 41 yards and closed the drive with his 19-yard run, which also represented his second-longest career run.
Turner set the table for himself on the Gamecocks' next scoring drive, running for 24 yards, his longest rush of the season, to the Vanderbilt 1 before taking a Bentley handoff and diving over the top for the score. Turner accounted for 35 rushing yards on four carries in the 10-play, 64-yard drive that put the Gamecocks up 14-7 with 1:01 to go in the opening quarter.
The teams swapped scores in the second quarter, with T.J. Wonnum breaking through to block Tommy Openshaw's PAT kick attempt on Vandy's score, an 8-yard Shurmur pass to C.J. Duncan. USC answered with another 5-play, 75-yard scoring drive, this one ending with Bentley's pass to Smith, who led all Carolina receivers with 76 yards on five receptions.
The Carolina defense contributed to one more score before halftime. A Steven Montac interception of Shurmur put the ball at the Commodores' 35 after a 10-yard return. Turner rushed for 14 yards, but a holding penalty negated a long Ty'Son Williams run that would have been close to a score, with Williams touching the pylon with the ball as he went out of bounds. The drive stalled there, with Parker White coming on to hit a 44-yard field goal that gave the Gamecocks their most points in a first half this season as Carolina took a 24-13 lead into the break.
The 24 first-half points represented the third most of the Muschamp era and the most against an SEC opponent in Muschamp's first two seasons.
USC took the second-half opening kickoff and drove to the Vandy 29 before the Commodore defense stiffened.
White was once again called upon for a long field-goal attempt but was wide left from 47 yards out. Turner caught a pass for nine yards and broke off a 20-yard run to get the ball to the 30 before Williams, the former Crestwood High School standout who ran for 13 yards on eight carries and lost seven yards on his only reception, ran for a yard ahead of two Bentley incompletions.
The Commodores struck quickly after the White miss, taking just three plays to go 70 yards for their third touchdown of the day. Shurmur unloaded from about midfield and hit wide receiver Kalija Lipscomb in stride right at the goal line for a 47-yard score that cut the Gamecocks' lead to four, 24-20, with 8:55 to go in the third.
Carolina ran 5:01 off the clock on its next possession, going 72 yards in eight plays with Bentley once again running it in, this time from 11 yards out, as the Gamecocks pushed their advantage back to 11, 31-20. Turner also passed the 100-yards rushing mark with a 27-yard run to help set up the score.
Given a third opportunity early in the fourth quarter, White made it 2-for-3 on field goals with a 39-yarder that capped a 10-play, 43-yard drive. Mon Denson came in to record three rushes for 22 yards on the drive.
A questionable pass interference call against Rashad Fenton put Vandy at the Carolina 11, helping set up a fourth Commodore score. Three plays later, Shurmur and Duncan hooked up once again, this time for four yards, to pull Vandy within seven and set up the exciting finish.