Photo by Mary Ann Chastain
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- After delivering South Carolina's biggest win ever, all coach Steve Spurrier could do was smile.
"I think that this game was meant to be," he said.
The way the Gamecocks played, it sure seemed like it.
Stephen Garcia threw three touchdown passes, two to Alshon Jeffrey, and Marcus Lattimore scored three times as 19th-ranked South Carolina stunned No. 1 Alabama 35-21 on Saturday.
Never before had the Gamecocks beaten a team ranked No. 1 -- at least not in football. So Spurrier had plenty of reason to bask in one of the biggest victories of his illustrious career.
When Spurrier arrived at South Carolina (4-1, 2-1) from the Washington Redskins, expectations in Columbia soared. He had dominated the SEC and led Florida to a national championship in 1996 before trying out the NFL.
South Carolina has been solid under Spurrier, but still hasn't won the SEC East -- and never really has come close. This bunch of Gamecocks might be able to change that with a winning mix of dynamic skill players and dominating defenders that could keep them in the title chase all season.
"I said 'Fellas, if fate means for us to win this game Saturday then let's give it a chance. Let's give fate a chance to happen,'" Spurrier said.
Opponents have had little chance against Alabama the past few seasons.
The defending national champions had won 19 straight games -- including last week's 31-6 rout of Florida -- since losing the Sugar Bowl to Utah after the 2008 season.
But facing a third consecutive ranked SEC team caught up with Alabama as Garcia and the Gamecocks used the Crimson Tide's formula for success: Cashing in on chances close to the goal line and limiting the country's best tailback duo in Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson to 64 yards.
South Carolina shredded the country's top-rated scoring defense, putting up the most points on Alabama (5-1, 2-1) since a 41-34 loss to LSU in 2007. The Gamecocks scored four touchdowns when they got inside the 'Bama 20 -- double what the Crimson Tide had allowed coming in.
"It's not like we just lost. They beat us," said Alabama coach Nick Saban, now 1-3 against Spurrier. "They outexecuted us. They played better than we played. They played with more intensity. They played physical."
Saban wants the Tide to remember this should they run into the Gamecocks for the SEC championship game.
"I actually talked to (Greg) McElroy after the game and he said, 'We'll see you all again,'" said Garcia, who was pulled from South Carolina's last game, a 35-27 loss at Auburn, after fumbling twice.
Alabama tried to rally back as it had against Arkansas two games ago, this time cutting South Carolina's 21-3 lead to 28-21 with most of the fourth quarter left.
The Crimson Tide's charge came courtesy of an odd safety by Garcia -- Spurrier threw his notes about 5 yards onto the field when his quarterback grabbed a wayward shotgun snapped and flung it through his own end zone from about the 2 -- a field goal and a 51-yard touchdown catch by Darius Hanks.
Alabama's last chance to tighten things came at the start of the fourth quarter when Jeffery, the SEC's leading receiver, bobbled a catch into the hands of Tide defensive back Will Lowery for an interception.
But McElroy was sacked for a 7-yard loss by Stephon Gilmore and Saban called a fake field goal that didn't come close to working as defensive lineman Ed Stinson dropped the throw from holder A.J. McCarron.
South Carolina answered with a 75-yard drive, capped by Lattimore's 2-yard score with 7:01 left that put the game away.
Alabama could not respond and South Carolina fans, as they had after the basketball team beat Kentucky in January and the baseball team defeated Arizona State at the College World Series in June, celebrated beating the country's No. 1 team.
"We haven't had this feeling in a long time and we don't want it again," Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower said.
Spurrier earned his 107th SEC victory, breaking a tie for second with Mississippi great Johnny Vaught. Alabama's Paul "Bear" Bryant is the all-time leader with 159 league wins.
"I gave myself a game ball for that one," Spurrier said.
Lattimore finished with 93 yards rushing. He also caught Garcia's first scoring pass, a 9-yard touchdown in the opening quarter.
Garcia was a tidy 17 of 20 for 201 yards and the one interception. He also picked up a critical fourth-and-1 on the Gamecocks final scoring drive. Jeffery had seven receptions for 127 yards, including TD catches of 26 and 15 yards.
McElroy threw for a career-high 315 yards, but was sacked seven times. He says Alabama will learn from the loss and bounce back.
"I promise will do everything in my power to get these guys ready to go and put this loss in the rear view mirror," McElroy said.