College Sports

‘Give fate a chance.’ An oral history of South Carolina’s 2010 upset of No. 1 Alabama

Stephen Garcia started his afternoon in a jersey and football helmet, but ended his night wearing a robe and Spartan mask. What the only man in South Carolina history to quarterback the Gamecocks to a win over a No. 1-ranked team remembers most about Oct. 9, 2010, isn’t Steve Spurrier’s pre-game message or Alshon Jeffery’s catch or Stephon Gilmore’s sack.

“It’s the after-party,” Garcia said, “for sure.”

Call it a deserving evening of celebration for one of Columbia’s most notorious revelers of that era. Garcia had just guided USC to an upset of reigning national champion Alabama.

How it all happened — the win to set up the party — was the result of a confident coach, a particular game plan and a few individual performances for the ages.

Nick Saban on Saturday will bring the Crimson Tide back to the site of its last loss to an SEC East Division team. It’s been nine years since Williams-Brice Stadium rocked to the scenes of Marcus Lattimore racing past C.J. Mosley, Gilmore bringing down Greg McElroy and Jeffery jumping over Dre Kirkpatrick.

Following, told in the words of those who know it best, is the inside story of South Carolina 35, Alabama 21.

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From Oct. 9, 2010: South Carolina linebacker Tony Straughter celebrates with fans after the Gamecocks’ win over Alabama at Williams-Brice Stadium. Gerry Melendez The State

The build-up

South Carolina had two weeks to prepare for Alabama — and recover from Auburn. The Tigers, behind Cam Newton, rallied from 13 points down to beat the Gamecocks, 35-27, on Sept. 25. That game ended with Connor Shaw at quarterback after Stephen Garcia was benched in the fourth quarter for fumbling. Shaw threw interceptions on each of USC’s final two drives. The loss dropped Carolina to 3-1, and from No. 12 to No. 20 in the AP poll.

Stephen Garcia, South Carolina quarterback: “It’s a good thing we had that bye week after Auburn. Because when Coach pulled me out of that game and put in Connor and he goes in and throws two picks, I had some very choice words to say to Coach Spurrier. It’s a good thing we had that bye week to kind of cool off a little bit.”

Steve Spurrier, South Carolina coach: “We’ll give Connor some more looks in there. He threw some good balls tonight.” *

On Oct. 2, while the Gamecocks rested, Alabama whipped No. 7 Florida, 31-6, for a nation’s best 19th consecutive win. The streak included a 20-6 victory over South Carolina in 2009 that featured 246 rushing yards from Mark Ingram, a signature performance in the running back’s Heisman season.

DeVonte Holloman, South Carolina safety: “It was embarrassing to us. I remember on the plane ride home how embarrassed I was, how embarrassed we were. We didn’t want anything like that to happen again. We were looking at the Heisman show and highlights of him against us were all over that. We knew that was coming up again next year and we didn’t want to end up on any of those kind of deals anymore.”

Travian Robertson, South Carolina defensive tackle: “We felt like Ingram kind of won the Heisman just off us alone, rushing for as many yards as he rushed for.”

Tori Gurley, South Carolina receiver: “That’s all we talked about that entire week. The rest of the year, after Mark won the Heisman, every time they put up a highlight, it was him breaking a run against our defense. That was like his Heisman moment.

“We all felt responsible for that. And Spurrier felt responsible for it as well. When we went to Alabama the previous year, Coach decided to throw three fade patterns in the back of the end zone to Alshon. We were all frustrated with the offense. Like, ‘Oh my God, Coach came out here and he lost his bearings.’ “

Alabama finished 2009 with a 14-0 record and national title. By August 2010, the Tide had 21 players on 12 different preseason award watch lists. Ingram was trying for a Heisman repeat, but he was hardly Alabama’s only weapon. Sophomore Trent Richardson was a rising star at running back. Julio Jones was arguably the country’s top receiver. The Tide defense, led by four future first round picks, entered South Carolina week yielding nine points a game.

Gurley: “I remember after getting our Day 1 install and going in Coach Spurrier’s office. I was looking at the plays and I had some questions. So I went up there and visited him. And it was the first time he didn’t have his golf club in his hand when I went up and talked to him. He was like really watching film. He really was locked into the game. And the first words that came out of his mouth were, ‘I’m going to stick it to Nick Saban and Alabama.’”

Garcia: “That week of practice was probably the most chill that Coach Spurrier ever was in my entire career playing for him. He was as cool as you could possibly imagine. That’s what made me want to come to South Carolina, his attitude that week specifically.

“He was carefree. ‘We’re going to go out there and we’re going to play hard and we’re going to give ourselves a chance.’ That’s the kind of guy that I liked. I didn’t like him constantly up my (butt) and chewing me out all the time.”

Gary Danielson, CBS Sports game analyst: “Going into that game, the only hint that I had was the confidence that Steve Spurrier had Thursday in practice, telling his receivers that if they ran these routes this way ... he was very detailed in how he wanted their splits and how he felt they could work patterns against their matchup zone defense, especially in the red zone.

“And I’ve said this prior and I’ve said this since because of this game: To play an effective game against Alabama, there’s not a lot of tricking going on against them. People always give a lot of credence if you can hurry up and beat them or you can trick them by running so many plays. But I felt that that was always fool’s gold and I think that Coach Spurrier felt that too. He said that if they couldn’t hold up at the line of scrimmage offensively and defensively and didn’t take advantage of their matchups, namely Alshon Jeffery, they’d be in trouble.

“And he felt that he could make Alshon a pressure point in that game.”

Gurley: “I remember seeing Alshon go at Stephon Gilmore. Usually you have a scout team going against starters. And Coach mixed it up and everything was super competitive. Everyone was locked in. The coaches were talking trash to each other.”

Shawn Elliott, South Carolina offensive line coach: “We had the utmost confidence going into that game. I can remember calling a buddy of mine, having just casual conversation with a friend of mine, and I remember telling him, ‘Hey, we’re gonna beat Alabama.’ And you could imagine his reaction. But I said, ‘Nah. I want you to know we’re fixing to beat them.’ I think it was a Wednesday afternoon.”

The Gamecocks, as was tradition under Spurrier, went to a movie on game day eve. This week’s flick of choice was Secretariat, a bio pic on the 1973 Triple Crown winner.

Robertson: “Coach Spurrier’s message was to do your job and it’s your race to win. There’s no one else to race. You’re alone in your lane, it’s your job, you focus on the finish line and don’t worry about anything else.

“The horses that run their race, they only see straight. They can’t see on the side. So he basically told us to run our race, have faith that you’ll win your race.”

Garcia: “Coach Spurrier, he absolutely loved that movie. I’ll never forget that saying. He was like, ‘Give fate a chance.’ That was one of the lines of the movie. And he said it over and over and over again.”

Spurrier: “We talked about that all week. That’s something I say every now and then when you’re the underdog. Give fate a chance, it might be our turn to win. If fate’s on our side, we can win this thing.”

The perfect start

Alabama closed as a touchdown favorite. ESPN’s College GameDay, set up on USC’s Horeshoe, ended with Lee Corso donning an elephant mascot head, confirming his pick for a Crimson Tide win.

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From Oct. 9, 2010: Lee Corso puts the Alabama elephant mascot head on during ESPN Gameday on the Horseshoe. Tracy Glantz The State

Gurley: “We watched that at the hotel and saw Corso do that. And we were like, ‘Let’s go stick it to them. These people have no clue. It’s easier to pick Alabama because they are the No. 1 team in the country. But these guys got to come out and play us on our home field.’ And that’s something we really took pride in, getting wins and taking care of our home.”

Lorenzo Ward, South Carolina defensive coordinator: “Even though Alabama had won 19 straight games, our kids didn’t feel like they were inferior. We felt like we had a bunch of kids that felt like they could go into that game and win.”

Gurley: “We knew we were prepared to go out and win that game. I’ll never forget when I stood on the field. I looked across and saw Mark Ingram, Julio Jones and Nick Saban standing next to each other and I was smirking at them like, ‘You guys are about to have a blemish on your record and you don’t even know it.’ Nick Saban was over there combing his hair, he put his fingers through his hair, looking like a pretty guy.”

Alabama took the opening possession deep into USC territory, but settled for a field goal. South Carolina responded with a seven-play, 63-yard drive that ended with a Garcia-to-Marcus Lattimore touchdown pass. The 7-3 score marked only the second time the Tide had trailed all season.

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From Oct. 9, 2010: South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore scores a touchdown against Alabama at Williams-Brice Stadium. Gerry Melendez The State

Garcia: “We started off in an empty set. We had typically not done that in the past, but Coach Spurrier had some confidence in me for some reason — he never usually did, he was too busy chewing my (butt). But we went out 5-wide and he was like, ‘Look, we’re going to win this game with you. It’s kind of on your shoulders. Here’s the keys to the car and go do something.’ “

Elliott: “We had put in what we called the missile play to Marcus Lattimore on the first touchdown. It was a little missile screen where Marcus runs a little angle route. We slipped our center out — T.J. Johnson … We singled up the Mike backer on Marcus and we knew we could pick him off. I just remember going through that play and I just remember, ‘God, what a perfect play for this kind of defense.’

“C.J. Mosley kind of over-ran Marcus a little bit and T.J. went and threw on him and cut him right there at the last second. Marcus went in there scot-free, Stephen flips the ball right there. It was exactly the way we envisioned it, exactly the way we had drawn it up. It was executed to perfection. And we had probably repped that thing a thousand times.”

Danielson: “That was a play that they practiced four times on Thursday. It was a designed matchup that Steve had in his pocket, that he said, ‘This will work against them.’ He was in practice, he was talking about it. He knew he had the matchup. He knew the middle linebacker would over-play the play exactly the way he did.

“When a coach kind of says, ‘I can get you a touchdown’ and he does, I think that goes a long way to a team’s confidence.”

South Carolina scored on its first three possessions, taking a 21-3 lead early in the second quarter. Momentum had shifted slightly by halftime with a Greg McElroy-to-Julio Jones scoring strike that cut the Gamecock advantage to 12.

Robertson: “Usually sometimes you have teams that score right before the half and you get a little down on defense because you know what just happened with the touchdown. Nobody wants to do that. But we were up, we were excited.”

Holloman: “We just accepted the mistake and vowed not to let it happen again. But man, they were a good team. We knew they were going to make some plays, too.

“And we knew at halftime they were going to come out and make a push, that Coach Saban was going to go in there and yell and scream at them and they were going to come out and try to throw a death blow again. But we were ready and prepared for it.”

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From Oct. 9, 2010: Quarterback Stephen Garcia watches the scoreboard as the Gamecocks hold their lead against Alabama at William-Brice Stadium. C. Aluka Berry The State

The Garcia safety

Auburn game mistakes well behind him, Garcia was perfect over the first 30 minutes against Alabama. He completed all nine of his passes for 94 yards and three TDs, including two to Jeffery. A blunder, though, was waiting for him on South Carolina’s first play of the second half. He collected a bad snap around USC’s 5-yard line and tossed the football through the back of the end zone for a safety, pulling the Tide to within 10.

Elliott: “We all cringed when that happened.”

Garcia: “It was kind of a funky-looking defense and I saw the safety coming up behind the slot receiver to the right. So I knew something was up. I’m in the shotgun and I’m looking out of the corner of my eye, to my right, as I’m calling the cadence and I see him hauling (butt). He’s blitzing. The ball was snapped over my head and I was like, ‘There ain’t no way I’m out-running this guy,’ so I got a great bounce and I just flipped it to the back of the end zone.

“When I got off the field and on the sideline, Coach Spurrier was chewing me out. He was like, ‘What the hell are you doing? You got a great bounce. Why didn’t you catch it and try to throw it out of bounds or something?’ “

Spurrier: “I thought maybe he’d try to run out of the pocket and throw it up. But he tossed it up in the back of the end zone, didn’t he? I don’t know, he did some funny things. I don’t remember if I asked him why he did it.”

Garcia: “We’re watching film on Monday and Coach Spurrier’s like, ‘You know that’s the play of the game right there, that’s the smartest play you’ve ever made.’ And I was like, ‘Thanks, man, I wish you would have told me that then.’ “

Ward: “We tried to make sure that we harped all week on momentum. We always told the defense, ‘Something bad will happen on offense. We have to do something to change that momentum back to South Carolina’s side.’ “

Robertson: “It was a bad play, but we just kept fighting because we knew what we had in front of us. We knew from the outside looking in, it looked bad. But on the field, it was like, ‘You know what? Let’s keep moving.’ “

The finish

USC kept Alabama to a field goal on the ensuing possession. With Ingram and Richardson all but shut down (held to a combined 64 yards on 17 carries), McElroy was forced to throw a then-season-high 34 passes. He was sacked seven times, perhaps none more crucial than Gilmore’s on third-and-4 on the Carolina 18 and Tide down 28-21 with 12:01 left in the fourth quarter.

Greg McElroy, Alabama quarterback: “I remember them making it really difficult for us to get into rhythm. I remember I held on to the ball a little too long on a few different occasions trying to make a play.”

Spurrier: “Fortunately, McElroy wouldn’t throw the ball away. He kept going down with it a bunch of times.”

Ward: “We felt like if we could make them one dimensional, we had a chance to win the game. We did a good job of stopping the run first and then we had guys like Stephon Gilmore — guys that were confident in their ability — to handle Julio Jones outside.”

Robertson: “I remember previous years where our team would always talk about Tim Tebow and how good guys on the other team were. And I was kind of upset about that and I wanted us to focus on how good we were. And I think once we put it in our heads that, ‘OK, they have good players, but we are good, too,’ we started playing like it.”

Garcia finished 17-of-20 for 201 yards, three touchdowns and a pick. Lattimore carried 23 times for 93 yards and two scores. Jeffery’s day — seven catches, 127 yards, two TDs — was highlighted by a fourth quarter grab that stands as a signature highlight of his Carolina career. The 45-yard play set up USC’s final touchdown, all but sealing the win.

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From Oct. 9, 2010: Alshon Jeffery, with a defender draped over him and Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart watching, makes a one-handed catch in the fourth quarter that led to the Gamecocks’ final touchdown in its 35-21 win Saturday. Gerry Melendez/gmelendez@thestate.com The State file photos

Robertson: “I get chills just thinking about that play. Like I said, everybody was like, ‘They got Julio blah-blah-blah.’ But we were like, ‘We got Alshon. Alshon’s just as good.’ “

Gurley: “I think between Odell Beckham and Alshon Jeffery, I think those are the two best catches I’ve ever watched.

“And with Alshon’s, I was able to see it up close and personal. And it just kind of blew my mind when I watched the replay. It gives me chills every time I see it. I was like, ‘Wow, this guy really caught the ball between his elbow and bicep.’ That’s just unheard of.”

Garcia: “It was press up top. I actually could have thrown that little hitch to Tori, but I liked the Alshon matchup (against Dre Kirkpatrick) a little bit more. He wins that nine out of 10 times.

“I took my little three drop under center and just threw it up to him. I’ll say it was a pretty damn good ball. If he could have got two hands up, it would have been fricking money. But he was getting held and it’s Alshon, we kind of expected him to make that play. We weren’t really overly shocked by that.”

Jason Barnes, South Carolina receiver: “I just remember Garcia and Alshon being on fire. I remember going against Dre Kirkpatrick, and Dre Kirkpatrick just saying things. He was very good, but he was very humble. He would say things like, ‘Y’all got the best receivers in the SEC.’ “

Spurrier: “Alshon had a bunch of catches. Stephen Garcia played the game of his life.”

Gurley: “It was a game plan that worked to perfection. I have to take my hat off to Stephen Garcia because he literally played it to perfection. He was a guy that went out and he had ultimate confidence. Stephen talked so much trash to Alabama, he talked trash to Nick Saban, the defensive line, it didn’t matter. And we all stood behind him arm in arm because we knew we were the team to go out and make this happen.”

Connor Shaw, South Carolina quarterback: “That was a top five quarterback performance I’ve ever seen live. Stephen was on it. Everyone stepped up around him, Alshon played a heckuva game. It was fun to watch and fun to be a part of.”

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From Oct. 9, 2010: South Carolina QB Stephen Garcia and receiver Tori Gurley celebrate the Gamecocks win over No. 1 Alabama at Williams-Brice Stadium. The State

Gurley: “It was unbelievable. When the clock hit triple zeroes, I just remember screaming. I ran to the sideline and screamed in Coach Saban’s face. And I have a picture of Greg McElroy. It was like his first loss in years.

“It was one of those things where the emotions were all over the place. I think I ran and jumped in the student section and we all just sat out there and had a great time.”

Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina running back: “I wanted the students to rush the field, but they didn’t. I’m still dreaming, and it’s crazy. It’s just something I can live on for the rest of my life, tell my kids and everything.” *

Garcia: “It was an electric atmosphere. I feel like everybody was shocked at the end of the day. It was almost like an eerie silence in the crowd. It obviously wasn’t silent, it was going crazy, but just the feeling that everybody was like, ‘Holy (crap), they did it.’ “

Holloman: “We did celebrate. I’ve never seen the city excited like that.”

Gurley: “I ain’t saying names, but there was a guy who played quarterback and he was feeling himself so much that he had on a Spartan’s helmet like from ‘300,’ a robe and some Jesus flip-flops. And he was in Five Points. I’m quite sure you can figure out who that was.

“We were celebrating like we won the Super Bowl.”

Garcia: “It was a 3:30 game so we had the whole afternoon and night to let the party go. We had Sunday off, so we kind of just ran through the entire Sunday. I did not make class or workouts or anything that Monday morning. It was a full couple days of going hard. It was awesome.”

The aftermath

South Carolina went on to win its only SEC East Division title in school history. It finished 9-5 with a loss in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Alabama went 10-3 and with a No. 10 final ranking in the AP poll. Participants in the 2010 Gamecocks-Crimson Tide game included 13 top-three round picks over the next two NFL Drafts.

The Gamecocks remain 1-5 all-time against No. 1 ranked teams.

Garcia: “At the time, it was like, ‘Oh, man, that’s awesome, we beat Alabama.’ But looking back that was the first time ever beating a No. 1 ranked team and it’s the last time an SEC East time has beat Alabama. That’s still unbelievable to me.”

Robertson: “That’s a game I can share with my grandkids. I’ll never forget that game.”

Elliott: “Alabama, Nick Saban, 19 wins in row. They were this machine coming in here, and we beat them. I wouldn’t say it goes at the top of the list, but it is right there. It may be 1B or 1C as far as the wins in my coaching career.”

Spurrier: “It turned out that fate was smiling on the Gamecocks that day.”

* denotes where quote was used from archived stories

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From Oct. 9, 2010: USC players celebrate with fans after their 35-21 win over Alabama at Williams-Brice Stadium. Gerry Melendez The State

Andrew Ramspacher has been covering college athletics since 2010, serving as The State’s USC men’s basketball beat writer since October 2017. His work has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors, Virginia Press Association and West Virginia Press Association. At a program-listed 5-foot-10, he’s always been destined to write about the game. Not play it.
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