Yesterday, the South Carolina Gamecocks notched a comfortable victory over the UCF Knights. As they should have, as this was an opponent plagued by injuries and youth and maybe just not being very good. A cursory glance at the 31-14 final reveals a not unorthodox score that tells the tale of a typical football game of this nature. The Cocks racked up four touchdowns and a field goal and the game was never really in doubt, right? UCF tacked on a garbage score late to make it closer than it was, yeah?
Those of us who watched the game know better. We know that, outside of a few thrilling defensive plays and a monster field goal, the first half was mostly gross and foreboding. Our point total showed five for almost a full quarter, which felt undignified even when we led. It felt downright pathetic when the Knights scored 14 unanswered, when our star player muffed a punt he never should have bothered with, when our coach trotted out a backup quarterback looking for a spark but getting three ugly misfires, and when the refrains of "U-C-F, U-C-F!" bellowed throughout an otherwise lifeless stadium.
Dignity had hardly been on the menu this season anyway, even if we thought, maybe, playing a bad UCF team would change that. Thirty minutes in, nothing had changed. We still looked like a quasi-team, devoid of chemistry, unable to stitch together a stretch of inspiring play, even against lesser competition. Hell, combine the best four of the first 14 quarters of our season, and you would be hard pressed to come up with a team worth watching.
But then, the team played its best fifteen minutes of the season. Remember the context, because it helps: Prior to the half, UCF had scored touchdowns on consecutive drives (ignore two clock-bleeding runs to end the half) and South Carolina's previous four drives had gone punt, fumble, punt, chipshot field goal. Momentum was squarely on the side of the Knights, who got the ball out of the half. We feared the worst, and doing so did not feel unreasonable.
The teams actually exchanged punts for the first 40 percent of the quarter—the clock showed 9:07 when South Carolina took over at its own 26, and that's when things got fun.
Lorenzo Nuñez scrambles for 23. Consecutive Carson runs of eight and 14. The home crowd was thawing in parallel with the rising action on the field, and with the ball at the UCF 29 yard line, Pharoh Cooper happened:
It's a shame this play won't get more attention, because it's a Manzielian display of improvisation and athleticism that, were it a higher profile game, would appear again and again on the weekly highlight cycle. But it still happened, and it was the first in a series of cymbal crashes that sparked a 20 point quarter.
Next was TJ Holloman's first interception, which came on a third and short. Bo Schneider's pass deflected off Jordan Frank's hands, and TJ cradled the ball inches before it touched the turf.
Carolina ball, and the surge continued. Four plays into the drive, a play-action rollout destined for Pharoh Cooper instead wound up in the hands of an uncovered Jacob "Dan" August.
Two receivers caught passes on that drive. In addition to August, Carlton Heard reeled in a 23 yard reception. To review: We have a true freshman center snapping it to a true freshman quarterback, completing passes to walk-ons. It's not an ideal scenario, but you play the cards you're dealt. Sometimes a low pair wins the hand. 22-14 is still a one score game, but the fog of an upset seemed to be dissipating.
After a holding penalty on the kickoff, UCF gained about one third of its third quarter yards on the next two plays: pass for seven, pass for 17. But this was South Carolina's quarter, Bo Schneider, so if you'll stick to script:
In stark contrast to the graceful acrobatics necessary for pick one, this ball was giftwrapped and delivered on a slow drone to Holloman. But a pick's a pick, and TJ won't complain. The offense quickly found itself in a 3rd and long situation, but a quarterback draw meant an easy first down—easy, it must be said, due to a pretty block from Shon Carson:
On the next play, Pharoh continued his first half apology tour, overcoming double coverage for a touchdown snag on a post route:
The throw wasn't bad, even if Nuñez could have led Pharoh a little more. But Cooper timed his jump perfectly and walled off the defenders. It was the exclamation point at the end of the string of YESes that was the third quarter (you'll recall we botched the extra point, thus sprinklin' a little Carolina dust on this otherwise euphoric run.)
The quarter ended while UCF was mounting a drive, which ended via turnover on downs. The fourth was mostly a run-heavy clock milking clinic reminiscent the Shaw era, and given last season's fourth quarter debacles, I'll tender no complaints.
The vitals for Q3: 14 plays, 180 yards split almost equally between the rush and pass, 20 points, 13 of them coming off turnovers. UCF completed four drives in the quarter and started a fifth. They respectively ended via punt, punt, pick, pick, and turnover on downs.
I write this piece not only to underscore the importance of the quarter to our victory on Saturday, but also as a slab of eye candy for a fanbase that deserves something, anything on which to hang its hat. Because the 2015 season's been a slog so far, and until this magical quarter we'd been privy to an uninspiring win, a frustrating loss, a thorough depantsing, and one half of abysmal play that had us wondering "If we can't even beat UCF..."
But then the third quarter happened, and we found our joy and remembered how fun it can be to watch your team run on all cylinders. We can't know if this was a corner being turned or just our season's Wow! signal. But whatever it is, it was a vital correction, one that won us a game and, if at least for seven nights, changed the discussion from, "What happened to South Carolina football?" to "Did you see what Pharoh Cooper did on that trick play?"