- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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COLUMBIA, S.C. -- To truly appreciate South Carolina’s 41-13 season-opening victory Thursday night over Southern Miss, you’ve got to first rewind to an hour and a half before the game.
Saying the Gamecocks were totally in the dark is putting it mildly.
In fact, they were staring squarely down the barrel of being without 12 players, just about all of them starters.
“Our Plan B wasn’t very much in place,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. “I don’t know exactly what we would have done. But anyway, all the guys except a couple were able to play.”
On Wednesday, the day before the game, the NCAA had notified South Carolina that all of the players linked to the Whitney Hotel investigation were ineligible pending further review. And making matters worse, a couple others were added to that list, including prized freshman running back Marcus Lattimore and senior cornerback Chris Culliver.
A snag had cropped up with Lattimore and Culliver in separate matters and had nothing to do with the NCAA’s investigation into the South Carolina players’ living arrangements at the Whitney Hotel.
So the 12 players in limbo were completely separated from the team. They didn’t go to the hotel with the rest of the team, didn’t eat the pre-game meal, didn’t ride the team bus to the stadium.
For all intents and purposes, they weren’t members of the team.
That is, until just past 6 p.m. on Thursday when South Carolina finally got word that everybody but offensive tackle Jarriel King and Culliver had been cleared to play.
“We didn’t try to make it a distraction, but it certainly was a relief that we had basically all of our entire team here ready to play tonight,” Spurrier said. “It looked like there was a possibility that a lot of them might not be able to play. It worked out, and it was nice that we had all the guys on the field.”
But most of the day Thursday, the South Carolina coaches were scrambling.
It looked like they were going to be without all of their middle linebackers. Shaq Wilson was already injured and couldn’t play, and Rodney Paulk and Josh Dickerson were on the Whitney Hotel list.
As the clock ticked down closer to the game, the South Carolina coaches were bracing themselves to go with redshirt freshman Billy Byrne at middle linebacker. Byrne had never played in a game.
That’s how crazy it got, and it was equally tension-filled all week in practice.
Nobody knew for sure who was going to be available and who wasn’t.
One South Carolina assistant called it the “hardest week I’ve had in coaching.”
But to this staff’s credit and to the players’ credit, there were no residual effects on the field when all the smoke finally cleared.
Just one giant collective sigh of relief, although Culliver and King still have to work through some more issues before they're cleared by the NCAA to play.
“We practiced every day like the next guy wasn’t going to be there,” said South Carolina sophomore receiver Alshon Jeffery, who caught seven passes for 106 yards.
And that’s also the way the Gamecocks played -- like a seasoned team, like a focused team and like a team that expected to go out there and win going away no matter how bizarre these last couple of weeks have been around here.
“We weren’t going to let anything get to us,” said freshman receiver Ace Sanders, who parlayed his speed into a pair of big plays to set up touchdowns. “That’s the way it’s going to be all year.”
Spurrier did his best to ho-hum the performance, even though the Gamecocks rushed for 224 yards, passed for 225 yards and kept the Golden Eagles out of the end zone until a meaningless touchdown in the final minutes.
“We’ve got to get a lot better if we want to make a run and have a big year or whatever,” said Spurrier, whose Gamecocks now have a couple of extra days to get ready for Georgia’s visit on Sept. 11. “We’ve got a lot of areas we have to clean up. Hopefully, we can learn from this game and move on.”
Now that’s not to say the Head Ball Coach's swagger has completely left him.
He noted the Gamecocks had 41 points with 11 minutes left.
“They sort of milked the clock out on us,” Spurrier said. “I was thinking for a while there that we might for the first time ever score 50. I think we need to score 50. I think it’s good to score 50, if you can, but we couldn't do it tonight."
No, but the Gamecocks might have done one better. This is a program in the past that has unraveled at the first sign of adversity.
But not these guys and not this team.
Take the public battering that junior quarterback Stephen Garcia absorbed most of the offseason from Spurrier.
Garcia’s way of firing back was lowering his head and running over Southern Miss safety Justin Wilson on his way to the end zone, capping a gritty 22-yard run for South Carolina’s first touchdown.
Garcia also has a few more toys to play with on offense, in particular Lattimore and Sanders, two freshmen who only complement what was already an impressive nucleus of young talent in the program. Stephon Gilmore, DeVonte Holloman and Jeffery could play anywhere.
Are these guys for real?
We’ll know more when Georgia comes to town in a little more than a week.
But it doesn’t appear that much is going to rattle this crowd, and that’s a pretty good place to start in this league.