After an impressive start to the season, the ninth-ranked South Carolina Gamecocks have come home to do battle with the East Carolina Pirates.
East Carolina opened its season at home against Appalachian State last week, and the teams were neck-and-neck for nearly three quarters until a 90-yard kickoff return by Lance Ray late in the third quarter put the Pirates up by a touchdown. It was all ECU from there, as it went on to post a 35-13 win.
"You talk about special teams being a game-changing opportunity," East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeil said. "When (Ray) came to the sideline, he said 'Coach that is what you brought me here for.' It gave us momentum. To get that touchdown was fantastic."
The Pirates have now won 32 of their last 37 games when scoring 30 or more points.
South Carolina faced a hostile environment in its opener, going on the road to play SEC rival Vanderbilt in Nashville. The Gamecocks found themselves down, 13-10, going into the fourth quarter, but a touchdown by Marcus Lattimore with 11:25 left in the game gave them a 17-13 lead and they held on to win by the same score. They have now won 13 straight season openers as well as nine straight games against SEC Eastern Division foes.
In 16 all-time meetings, South Carolina has a 11-5 advantage over the Pirates. The Gamecocks took last year's bout in shootout fashion, 56-37, but before then the two team hadn't played since 1999.
The inspired play by the special teams gave East Carolina's offense the spark it needed. After scoring just once in the first three quarters, the Pirates' offense found the end zone twice in the fourth quarter to seal the victory.
Quarterback Rio Johnson was impressive in his first career start, as the junior threw for 242 yards and two touchdowns on 28-of-43 passing. He was also a factor with his legs, adding a six-yard touchdown run late in the game.
East Carolina used the run game to help win the time of possession battle, toting the ball 35 times for 148 yards. Michael Dobson garnered the most work out of the backfield with 19 carries for 78 yards.
Reese Wiggins (45 yards) and Justin Hardy (38 yards) both caught six passes from Johnson, with Hardy adding a touchdown reception. Andrew Bodenheimer was also on the receiving end of a touchdown strike from Johnson.
On paper, the Pirates defense did not play that well against Appalachian State, allowing 419 yards of total offense, but some big plays helped mask their deficiencies.
Down 7-0 in early in the second quarter, Chip Thompson picked up an Appalachian State fumble and returned it 45 yards for a touchdown. The fumble was forced by Jeremy Grove, one of two forced fumbles for the linebacker on the day.
Lamar Ivey added to the turnover advantage with an interception in the fourth quarter. Kyle Tudor led the team with 11 tackles.
The South Carolina offense struggled in a classic muck-and-grind SEC affair with Vanderbilt, accumulating just 272 yards.
The Gamecocks' game plan was skewed heavily towards the run, so Connor Shaw (7-of-11, 67 yards, INT) did not get many chances to make a difference in the passing game. He did contribute to the rushing attack with 92 yards.
In his first game since suffering a season-ending knee injury last October, Lattimore was back running like his old self with 23 carries for 110 yards and two touchdowns, a performance that earned him SEC Offensive Player of the Week honors.
Lattimore may have experienced some jitters early on as his first play resulted in a fumble, but he was able to rebound nicely.
"(The fumble) wasn't a good play and I hated that happening, but I just had to forget about it. After a few runs, I started to feel like myself again," Lattimore said.
"I knew that he was going to be able to come out here and pick up where he left off," Shaw added. "He had a great game tonight."
Lattimore was also the Gamecocks' leading receiver with three catches for 21 yards.
South Carolina proved why its one of the nation's best defensive teams, holding the Commodores to just one touchdown and 276 yards of offense.
The unit recorded five sacks on Vandy quarterback Jordan Rodgers and made a total of nine tackles in the backfield. Kelcy Quarles paced the defense with eight tackles, two tackles for loss, and a sack.
Shaq Wilson also had eight tackles and made a first quarter interception, which help set up the Gamecocks' first touchdown.