Sparky Woods coaches at Virginia Military Institute, where he is getting ready for a Big South game Saturday against Coastal Carolina. But he will be keeping tabs on two top-10 teams squaring off in Gainesville with conference and national championship implications in the air.
When Woods toggles his mind’s rewind button and revisits his years as head coach at USC, his first visit to Florida in 1992 unfurls before him in flat-screen clarity.
The ear-splitting roar settled on their shoulders like a pack mule’s burden.
The tackles held hands with the guards, who watched for the center to snap the ball. The center couldn’t hear the quarterback’s cadence.
Woods, with Steve Taneyhill at the helm, had somehow pulled USC’s first season in the SEC out of a nose dive and the 4-5 Gamecocks were on the cusp of upsetting defending league champion Florida on its own field.
Four remarkable weeks had reversed the horrors of the 1992 season’s first five games and the USC Gamecocks were eager to keep their bowl hopes alive.
Just a year prior, a cocky coach and former Heisman Trophy winner named Steve Spurrier had dubbed Ben Hill Griffin Stadium at Florida Field “The Swamp” in a gambit meant to intimidate the opposition.
No nickname was necessary.
“It was pretty intimidating,” Woods said. “In that one end zone, it was hard to execute your plan. We had this winning thing going. Gosh, if we pulled that one out …”
USC lost that game, 14-9. It was a defeat that ended a surprising four-game winning streak and ensured a losing season. A victory, combined with the Gamecocks’ win at Clemson two weeks later, could have led to a bowl game.
The Gamecocks lost, but they had bloodied Florida’s nose in the process. Florida hadn’t trailed at home the entire season until Marty Simpson’s 36-yard field goal gave USC a 3-0 lead midway through the first quarter.
“I just remember all the hype, how hard it was to play in The Swamp,” Simpson said Friday. “But The Swamp didn’t overwhelm me.”
Simpson considered that game as the final “Welcome to the SEC” moment for the Gamecocks. A controversial pass interference call gave the sputtering Gators some life, leading to a touchdown. A second score put USC in a 14-3 hole.
“I remember that as a call that could have gone either way,” Simpson said. “But it was like, ‘yeah, welcome to the SEC. You’re not going to get this call on the road.’ ”
With five minutes remaining, Taneyhill marched the Gamecocks 79 yards on a scoring drive that pulled them to within 14-9. The two-point conversion and ensuing onside kick failed.
“They probably outplayed us, outhustled us, and they definitely out-tackled us,” Spurrier said after the game. “But somehow or another, we held them to nine points. I don’t know how it happened, but it happened.”
In addition to that penalty, there were other key moments that went against the Gamecocks:
• Brandon Bennett missed a wide-open Don Chaney on a halfback pass that would have resulted in a touchdown and a 10-0 lead.
• A high snap on a fake punt later in that same drive delayed Cedric Surratt just enough to stop him from gaining a first down.
• Bennett was stopped short on a 4th-and-2 at the Gators’ 17 on the first drive of the third quarter.
• Taneyhill was intercepted in the end zone after the Gators had taken their 14-3 lead.
“I have a tendency to remember the bad things,” Woods said. “That pass interference penalty really hurt us. I remember thinking, ‘gosh, if we hadn’t done that, we might have won the game.’ That was a critical call, a critical error on our part.”
To come so close only to come away empty was tough to swallow, but Simpson said reality dictated a silver lining.
“We felt horrible on the plane ride home, but at the same time, I felt we left there thinking we could play with anybody in the SEC,” Simpson said.
Florida’s win that season was the first of 13 consecutive SEC wins against the Gamecocks and the second in a 14-game winning streak that dated to 1939.
That all changed in 2005, when the Gamecocks stunned the No. 12 Gators 30-22 in Urban Meyer’s first season.
USC’s coach: Spurrier.
On Saturday, when the Gamecocks play at The Swamp, they do so as a virtual equal of the Gators. They are among the SEC’s elite. It’s that difference in 20 years that stands out most to Simpson.
“We’re no longer the ‘moral victory’ team,” Simpson said. “We’re the team others get moral victories from when losing a close game to us.
“This is the new Carolina. These Gamecocks are not your grandparents’ Gamecocks.”