Home winning streak channels 1978-80 run

dcloninger@thestate.comNovember 15, 2013 

George Rogers was part of the group of South Carolina players that logged a then-school-record 15-game home winning streak.

FILE — THE STATE

“Sandstorm” will play, towels will wave and the stands at Williams-Brice Stadium may rock. It’s really not all that different from how it was 33 years ago.

The somewhat regrettable but now admired fact is that it took this long to get there again.

“When this run began being made a year ago, I thought they were closing in on this record,” said Chuck Allen, current South Carolina Board of Trustees member and former defensive stalwart for the Gamecocks, 1977-80. “I don’t care at all that they could beat our record. I hope it gets extended this year to No. 18. I’m pulling for them just as hard as I can.”

The Gamecocks host Florida on Saturday, hoping to extend their home winning streak to 16 games and set a school record in the process. They tied the record of 15 with a win over Mississippi State two weeks ago, and also leaped into the national lead of home winning streaks once Michigan lost.

The teams that posted the previous 15-game winning streak played from 1978-80, coinciding with a rise from a program hovering around .500 to back-to-back 8-4 seasons under coach Jim Carlen. It began with a 37-14 win over Wake Forest on Nov. 18, 1978, and lasted through one of the wildest games in program history with a 39-38 win on Nov. 15, 1980, also over Wake Forest. No one knew it was the start of something special when it began, but at the end, the group reflected on a fine run.

“We didn’t lose a game at home our junior or senior years,” said Allen, who was voted defensive captain in 1980. “That was a source of pride. We felt that didn’t happen by accident. We had a distinct home-field advantage, playing in Williams-Brice.”

“We just tried to make it a point, that we ain’t gonna lose at home,” said George Rogers, offensive captain and Heisman Trophy winner in 1980. “We might lose on the road, but we ain’t gonna lose at home.”

Reeling after North Carolina beat them 24-22 in the home game before the Wake game in ’78, the Gamecocks wanted to send that group of seniors out on a good note. They did, as Rogers galloped for 237 yards and two scores to pace a rout of the Demon Deacons.

The excitement was short-lived. USC was pounded 41-23 at Clemson the next week and wound up 5-5-1. Coming into the 1979 season, USC felt it had a team that was growing up and could be pretty good, but after North Carolina humbled it 28-0 on the road to start the year, spirits were down.

A change in scheme picked them back up.

“They were very good but weren’t highly regarded in the postseason,” Allen said of the Tar Heels. “We came back home against Western Michigan, and it was absolutely imperative that we had to win that game. We made an offensive change after the UNC game – we shifted to two-tight end after UNC and stuck with it.”

Western Michigan and Duke were easy wins. The Gamecocks went to Georgia and won, then beat Oklahoma State (coached by future Super Bowl winner Jimmy Johnson), and a week later, Ole Miss.

“Both went down to the wire,” Allen said. “I remember Oklahoma State, because we got a sack and a tackle for loss on their last possession, and yours truly had both of them.”

USC closed out the year by winning home games against NC State, Wake Forest and Clemson, before falling to Missouri in the Hall of Fame Bowl. Still, the Gamecocks had an 8-4 season, and the 1980 season looked very promising.

The streak stood at eight, but nobody was really thinking about that. It was more about trying to win every game. Yet, after the Gamecocks whipped Pacific and Wichita State by a combined 110-0 to start the 1980 season, they noticed something before the next home game.

Coming off back-to-back road games, the Gamecocks were back at Williams-Brice on Oct. 4, 1980. During warm-ups, the stadium sound system began pumping a bass-heavy, head-nodding beat.

Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.”

“It was being discussed,” Allen said of the streak reaching 10 games. “We really had some momentum.”

USC whipped NC State, Duke and Cincinnati before losing at Georgia. The Citadel fell at home the next week, leaving Wake Forest as the only team standing between USC and another perfect home record.

And it was nearly the end of the streak.

“It was 38-31, with about a minute to go in the game, and Wake had driven to our 20 and were lining up for a field goal,” Allen recalled. “They were in the huddle celebrating the win. I was on the field, and I thought they’d won, too.”

The Deacons missed the kick. “That whole thing just swung,” Allen said.

A few plays later, Garry Harper found Horace Smith for a 62-yard touchdown. USC trailed 38-37 and could have gone for the tie, since it wouldn’t hurt – the Gamecocks had already accepted a Gator Bowl invitation. But USC wanted the win.

There was no hesitation. Carlen called for a two-point conversion.

“We played to win,” said Rogers, who was playing his last home game. “It was a play where I went out in motion -- can you imagine that? I lined up and did an end route, and Horace Smith came across in motion.”

Harper hit Smith again, delivering a 39-38 win and USC’s 15th straight home victory. USC again went 8-4 and graduated a group of players who had taken the program to back-to-back terrific years.

The streak ended when Ole Miss beat USC in the 1981 home opener. The Gamecocks, after the 1979-80 seasons and then the “Black Magic” of 1984, thought that long winning streaks would be the standard. It didn’t turn out that way, as years of instability and inconsistency kept USC a forever-.500 program. The 15-game streak seemed destined to never be challenged, something that Allen and Rogers weren’t proud of.

They wanted it to be beaten.

“I thought maybe Lou Holtz would have done it, but that didn’t happen,” Rogers said. “But then Steve Spurrier came along. He runs a tight ship, and pushes all the right buttons. Just a heck of a football coach.”

USC’s current streak began on Oct. 8, 2011, against Kentucky. Coincidentally, it was a return to the starting role for quarterback Connor Shaw, who has been under center for the majority of the games since.

After a humbling loss to Auburn the week before, USC banded together and only lost one game the rest of that season (at Arkansas), finishing with a program-high 11 wins. The 2012 season featured seven more home wins on the way to another 11-win year. This season, the Gamecocks have beaten North Carolina, Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Mississippi State at home, and have three more home games to play.

Two former captains have no problems watching their streak become a footnote.

It’s about time.

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