Shane Beamer stood on the sideline and opened his arms wide.
People give hugs for all sorts of reasons. Love. Sadness. Joy. Comfort.
This was an embrace of gratitude.
Thank you, Xavier Legette for an other-worldly nine-catch, 217-yard, two-touchdown performance. For saving South Carolina from embarrassment at Williams-Brice Stadium. For keeping the 2023 season alive. For ensuring USC’s (slim) bowl hopes would stay afloat for another week. For being the safety blanket safeguarding South Carolina (3-6) as chaos and despair loomed.
On a day when nothing could go right, Legette was masterful, the one-man band who played song after song until the place shut down and South Carolina’s four-game losing streak was over.
Aside from Legette, Jacksonville State was the better team. The more-physical team. The more-disciplined team. The squad that was better when it needed to be.
Think about this: It took South Carolina over 25 minutes before it converted on a third down. On the day, USC successfully executed on just four of 14 of its third-down tries.
Heck, Beamer’s squad 0-2 on fourth down, including one failed conversion when punter Kai Kroger tried to throw a 40-yard jump ball that never had a chance.
The offense, at best, was inconsistent. And the defense — um, the defense was out there.
Jacksonville State, led by head coach Rich Rodriguez (aka the father of zone read), orchestrated a masterful plan against South Carolina’s ailing defense. With dual-threat quarterback Zion Webb running the show, JSU ran the ball 57 times for 225 yards.
At one point early in the game, Jacksonville State drove into the end zone looking like a service academy school that refused to throw.
Said analyst Rod GIlmore on the ESPNU broadcast: “This is shocking. This is not an offensive line or a front that should be pushing around South Carolina’s front … I am stunned, partner, at that kind of a push.”
Defense gets its turnovers
But South Carolina has rarely got much push this season. This is a squad that has struggled to get much pass rush all year. South Carolina has not lost because it can’t get push, it lost because it couldn’t get push and couldn’t get turnovers.
For weeks, Beamer and defensive coordinator Clayton White have talked and talked about needing turnovers. Which can sometimes feel like talking about needing to find a $5 bill lying on the street. So often, turnovers are the product of luck.
But Beamer and White still preached the importance. None came against Florida. None against Missouri. None against Texas A&M. White would step to the podium every week and say they’re coming. And when they do come, he emphasized, they’ll come in bunches.
On Saturday, the well broke. South Carolina recovered a pair of fumbles and picked off two passes.
The highlight: Down three with under three minutes to play, Jacksonville State drove into the red zone. A field goal seemed inevitable. A touchdown, considering South Carolina’s luck this year, felt like destiny. Then two Gamecock defenders hit Webb and sophomore Stone Blanton jumped in front of the QB’s pass and took it 88 yards to the house.
Crisis averted. Phew.
On a day when South Carolina honored its greatest football stretch (the 2010-2013) teams, disaster nearly struck. On a day when former coach Steve Spurrier grabbed the microphone at halftime and rattled off practically every major win and accomplishment the program racked up under his watch, the Old Ball Coach was close to witnessing one of USC’s worst losses.
With five minutes left in the third quarter, Jacksonville State led 28-21.
The program that fully jumped to FBS football just two months ago was in the belly of the SEC, armed with a sword ready to induce carnage.
But thank goodness for Legette.
Thank goodness that quarterback Spencer Rattler, who eclipsed 10,000 career passing yards on Saturday, was content to locate his top target and air it out. When South Carolina trailed late, the defense forced a much-needed fumble. A play later, Rattler saw No. 17 streaking down the field and cocked back.
Beamer put his arms out and South Carolina survived.
Next South Carolina football game
Who: USC vs. Vanderbilt
When: Noon Saturday, Nov. 11
Where: Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, SC
TV: SEC Network