NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Derek Mason is playing more combined freshman than any other coach in the country, and his Vanderbilt Commodores finally showed signs they're starting to grow up.
They may get even younger if Mason has to go with freshman Wade Freebeck at quarterback.
Darrius Sims returned two kickoffs for touchdowns, tying an NCAA record in the Football Bowl Subdivision, and Freebeck replaced Patton Robinette at quarterback as Vanderbilt blew a 14-0 lead in losing 48-34 to No. 14 South Carolina on Saturday night.
"It was our best overall game," Mason said. "We are a young, good football team with veterans leading the way. We need to tighten down what we do."
Mason would not say if Robinette was injured. Robinette left after the first quarter and did not return after he was 4 of 5 for 55 yards passing with a touchdown. Freebeck was 11 of 20 for 168 yards and a touchdown, but he also was intercepted just before halftime with Brison Williams returning the pick 53 yards for a TD.
The Vanderbilt coach said he'd have a better idea of Robinette's status Sunday. But Mason said Freebeck also showed why coaches are excited about the freshman's future. The Commodores (1-3, 0-2 Southeastern Conference) visit Kentucky in their first road game next.
"I'll see where Patton is and if Wade (starts), we'll find ways to make it work for Wade," Mason said. "We ran the ball well. We continued to run the ball well. We'll continue to run the ball well."
As pleased as Mason was with Vanderbilt's improvement, Spurrier was as upset with his Gamecocks in what he called one of the worst wins he's had.
Dylan Thompson threw for 237 yards and three touchdowns, and he ran for another score.
"We've all seen good football teams, we ain't one," Spurrier said. "Don't say we're one right now. The way we play? Maybe we can be? I don't know. It's no fun for me watching us play tonight."
Spurrier now has 202 Southeastern Conference wins, breaking a tie with Vince Dooley and putting him second only to Paul "Bear" Bryant (292). Spurrier also got his 20th win all-time against the Commodores.
The Gamecocks (3-1, 2-1) started slow coming off their 38-35 win over Georgia in their first road trip this season. They got going by scoring 17 points in the second quarter, part of 24 straight points that gave them the lead for good, and beat Vanderbilt for a sixth straight time in this series.
The Commodores pulled to 34-27 with 5:57 left but couldn't get closer as the Gamecocks answered with two TDs.
Thompson finished 22 of 34 passing with his TD passes to three different players as he completed passes to seven receivers. South Carolina outgained Vanderbilt 449-379 in total offense, and the Gamecocks turned two turnovers into 14 points.
Sims' TDs was the 18th time that's happened and first since 2012. He returned the opening kick 91 yards for a TD and then took Vanderbilt's first kickoff in the second half 100 yards to pull the Commodores to 24-21.
"We kept running right by the kickoff return guy, and he split us just about every time," Spurrier said.
Vanderbilt got the start Mason needed off Sims' kickoff return. Robinette made it 14-0 with an 8-yard TD pass to C.J. Duncan in the final minute of the first quarter. Vanderbilt held the ball for more than 9 minutes and outgained the Gamecocks 86-30.
The Gamecocks took control after Robinette left, scoring with a 45-yard field goal by Elliott Fly, a 29-yard pass from Thompson to Damiere Byrd for a TD. Vanderbilt was driving when Freebeck threw off his back foot and was intercepted by Williams.
Vanderbilt had its chances to recover three fumbles in the second half only to see the Gamecocks get the ball back each time.