James Franklin had the right play on to continue Vanderbilt's second-half rally and put No. 13 South Carolina on the ropes.
Instead, the Commodores coach saw his team fall short in a big spot for the second straight time this season in the Southeastern Conference.
Two games ago, it was Ole Miss' James Scott breaking free for a 75-yard touchdown run with 1:07 left in the Rebels' 39-35 victory. This time, it was Gamecocks cornerback Jimmy Legree stepping in front of Austyn Carta-Samuels' pass to the goal line with the Commodores (1-2, 0-2 Southeastern Conference) attempting to cut deeper into what had been a four-touchdown hole.
Legree's pick turned out to be Vanderbilt's last chance in a 35-25 loss Saturday night.
"It was the perfect call," Franklin said of Carta-Samuel's third-down throw from the South Carolina 5.
Legree had prime position and Franklin believed his quarterback should've made a better decision when a potential chip-shot field goal — kicker Carey Spear made a 54-yarder right before halftime — would've cut the lead to a touchdown with more than 8 minutes left.
"You throw it away or pull it down and run and live to play another day," Franklin said. "You don't force the ball."
The Gamecocks (2-1, 1-1) scored on their first-four possessions as Connor Shaw threw for three touchdowns and Jadeveon Clowney forced a third-quarter fumble despite pain in his right foot because of troublesome bone spurs he's had since high school.
The win was the 13th straight at home for the Gamecocks, who are tied with Georgia for the second-longest active streak in the nation.
South Carolina appeared to have this one finished early, scoring on its first four possessions to lead 28-0. It still led 35-10 when it opened the second half with Shaw's final TD pass, a 33-yarder to Brandon Wilds.
That's when the Commodores threw a scare into the Gamecocks, aided by a fumbled kickoff and punt by South Carolina. Vanderbilt scored twice in a 13-second span of the fourth quarter to pull within 10 points.
Still, it was a satisfied Steve Spurrier heading into the Gamecocks' first bye week after his team ran up 579 yards.
"This might've been the best we've looked on offense since I've been here, in the first quarter anyways and then it started slowing down a little," he said. "But we'll learn from it and try and see what kind of team we're going to be this year."
South Carolina started at the 1 with 8:41 left after Legree was ruled to have come out of the end zone on his pick. South Carolina moved 64 yards over the next 7:46 to seal the victory.
"That play, I felt like I kind of sealed the deal," Legree said. "It felt good."
Shaw completed 21 of 29 passes for 284 yards and also ran for 84. Bruce Ellington had eight catches for 111 yards and a touchdown. Clowney's sack — his second this season — forced Carta-Samuels to fumble with Vanderbilt at the South Carolina 17 early in the third quarter.
Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews, who came in leading the SEC in completions and receiving yards, had his third 100-yard game of the season with eight catches for 106 yards.
Tailback Wesley Tate said Vanderbilt never lost faith that it would rally.
"We've been in that situation before so we had the mindset coming out of locker room to take it one drive at a time. We did that well, but came up a little short," he said.
The Gamecocks hoped to make a loud statement after a disheartening loss at No. 9 Georgia last week, and they did for a half until getting sloppy. South Carolina overwhelmed the Commodores, with the Gamecocks' fired-up defense getting the stops they didn't a week earlier against the Bulldogs.
Shaw was 3 of 3 passing and rushed for 15 yards on the Gamecocks' opening drive, which ended with Nick Jones' 12-yard TD catch to start their scoring.
Shaw threw third-down passes of 11 yards to Rory Anderson and 37 yards to Mike Davis to keep things moving the next time South Carolina got the ball. Davis' 4-yard burst put the Gamecocks up 14-0.
Spurrier switched quarterbacks on the next drive, but it didn't make a difference as Dylan Thompson went 5-for-5 passing for 67 yards. The backup QB increased the lead to 21-0 with a 3-yard scoring run.
Shaw was back in control a series later, picking apart the Vanderbilt secondary on a 26-yard touchdown throw to Bruce Ellington that put the Gamecocks ahead by four touchdowns.
"This is what you hope for, playing hot coming out of the gate," Shaw said.
Like North Carolina and Georgia before them, the Commodores tried to stay away from Clowney, the All-American defensive end. This time, though, Clowney's teammates were there to clean things up. Defensive end Chaz Sutton and tackle Kelcy Quarles had drive-ending sacks on Carta-Samuels.
Vanderbilt had just four first downs and 95 yards in the first 30 minutes.
Clowney was happy to see the defense step up after surrendering 536 yards a week ago at Georgia. Vanderbilt finished with 268 yards and Carta-Samuels was sacked five times.
Clowney, expected to be the NFL's top draft choice next spring, said his foot pain will subside with rest coming up during the bye week. He expects he'll get the foot cleaned out again after the season.