COLUMBIA - It took South Carolina nearly seven years to block a punt.
It took them one week to do it again. And this time it led to a huge win.
Eric Norwood swung the momentum around with a blocked punt that USC converted into the go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter, sparking the Gamecocks to a come-from-behind 38-21 victory over stubborn Mississippi State, 38-21, before 78,883 sun-splashed fans Williams-Brice Stadium.
Moments after Norwood's tide-turning play, Chris Smelley connected with Kenny McKinley on a 27-yard touchdown pass that gave USC the lead for good at 24-21 with 3:43 left in the third quarter.
"(The blocked kick) was a momentum-changer," Norwood said. "(The snapper) stepped away and tried to pick me up late. I looped around him. Coach Beamer and I had it set up. The offense came out and scored right away after that play. We had to go out and finish it off after that play."
The Gamecocks added 14 points in the fourth quarter on a pair of TD runs by Mike Davis, competing USC's stretch of 21 unanswered points after Mississippi State has seized a 21-17 lead on a short scoring run on its second possession of the third quarter.
"We can finally say that special teams helped win a game around here," USC head coach Steve Spurrier said. "After the block, it turned around. It was smooth sailing for us. Eric is one of out best players. That's why we've got him in on punt block. We've got to put our best players in to make plays."
USC improved to 4-1 overall, 2-1 in the SEC heading into Thursday night's probable Top 15 showdown against undefeated Kentucky in Columbia.
The Wildcats improved to 5-0 with a 45-17 victory over Florida Atlantic Saturday afternoon in Lexington.
The Gamecocks have won five straight games over the Bulldogs dating back to 1999. The two teams do not meet again until 2011.
Mississippi State fell to 3-2 overall, 1-2 in the SEC.
Chris Smelley celebrated his 21st birthday by completing 19-of-37 passes for 279 yards and two touchdowns with one interception in the second start of his career, earning another start against Kentucky.
"I was planning on going the whole way," Smelley said. "I felt the good the whole time. I've been practicing for weeks. I've been in a game situation before. I thought I managed the game well. I felt like I was in control and a leader out there."
Two of Kenny McKinley's four receptions went for touchdowns. He surpassed 100 yards receiving for the second time this season.
"Kenny made a beautiful play (on the go-ahead touchdown), as he did on just about everything all day," Spurrier said. "Obviously Kenny had a super game."
After a sluggish start to the ground game, Mike Davis and Cory Boyd finished with 59 and 58 yards, respectively. The duo combined for 101 yards in the second half after managing just 16 yards in the first.
Davis rushed for three touchdowns, tying the school record set many times. Boyd was the last to accomplish the feat last season against Wofford.
"This was a big win," Davis said. "We needed momentum going into the (Kentucky) game.
USC converted 9-of-18 third down opportunities, including 6-of-10 in the first half.
After allowing the third quarter touchdown to the Bulldogs, the USC defense buckled down by yielding just 66 yards over the final 24 minutes of the game.
"Our defensive kids are well-coached," Spurrier said. "They can play defense. We can play the pass. We've got to stop the run but we can't keep giving opportunities."
Mississippi State had 140 yards rushing, but just 118 yards passing. The Bulldogs had just 38 yards passing in the second half.
Marvin Sapp filled in admirably for middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley, leading USC in tackles with eight. Emanuel Cook had seven.
"When I went out there, I didn't think, 'Oh, I have to play like Jasper Brinkley,'" Sapp said. "I was going to play my game. My coaches have confidence in me to play that position. It was time for me to show the coaches that. If I gave full effort and played my assignments, I knew I would have a good game."
The biggest play by the defense came with 11 minutes remaining in the contest when Cook dropped Mississippi State running back Anthony Dixon for a two-yard loss on a fourth-and-inches from the USC 37.
"I just saw the fullback coming to me and I just stayed back and made the play," Cook said. "The (second) drive of the second half we were a little slow. But I think we stepped it up after that. We have to step it up every week for four quarters now.""
Darian Stewart came up with his first interception of the season on MSU's next possession midway through the fourth quarter with USC holding a 31-21 advantage.
After scoring from two yards out the second play of the fourth quarter, Davis concluded his day with a 12-yard TD jaunt with 58 seconds left in the contest.
The second half started poorly on both sides of the ball for USC when Smelley was sacked twice to drive USC back to its 17. The Bulldogs took the ball and simply ran the ball straight at the Gamecocks, needing just five rushing plays to move 48 yards for a go-ahead 1-yard TD run by Dixon with 8:56 left in the third quarter.
Trailing 21-17, Chris Culliver showed off his speed by returning the ensuing kickoff to midfield. USC drove as far as the USC 32 when Ryan Succop missed a 50-yard field goal.
But Norwood then made a play equal to his fourth-down sack at Georgia three weeks ago when he bulled his way through the center of the line to block a MSU punt. The ball ricocheted to the MSU 27, where USC's Lanard Stafford recovered.
Spurrier typically goes for the jugular in those situations and the HBC didn't disappoint Saturday.
On the first play from scrimmage, Smelley hit McKinley over the middle around the 10-yard line and he scooted the rest of the way into the end zone to give USC a 24-21 lead with 3;43 left in the third quarter.
"Chris Smelley handled the ball pretty well," Spurrier said. "He made one careless throw but other than that he was pretty good. The protection got a little better towards the end of the game. It wasn't all that great early but the (offensive) line played pretty well."
After another illegal block negated a long punt return by Munnerlyn, Smelley threw a perfect third-down slant pass to McKinley, who outraced the MSU secondary for a 48-yard gain before being tackled at the 4-yard line.
Davis bulled over from the 2-yard line on the next play (MSU was penalized for an illegal substitution) for his second TD of the afternoon to expand USC's lead to 31-21 with 14:07 left.
A tremendous stand on fourth-and-inches denied the Bulldogs a first down at the USC 37 on MSU's ensuing possession, ending a seven-play drive.
Dixon first tried to go up the middle but sought to bounce outside when the gamecocks clogged the running lanes. Emanuel Cook tackled him for a two-yard loss.
After USC went three-and-out, Stewart intercepted a Josh Riddell pass when the ball bounced off the chest of the MSU receiver into the arms of Stewart.
"The win felt real good," Stewart said. "The first half we didn't play well but the second half we came out and did what we usually do."
USC took the opening kickoff and saw Boyd, possibly its most versatile player depart on the first play from scrimmage with a right knee sprain when he was buried for a 3-yard loss.
Undeterred, Smelley completed passes to Davis (11 yards) and Cook (31 yards) to move the ballot the MSU 28. Smelley converted his first third-and-long situation when he connected with the reliable Freddie Brown for a 20-yard gain to the MSU 13.
Four plays later, Davis leaped - literally - over a MSU defender and managed to plunge into the end zone for the initial touchdown of the afternoon, completing a 12-play, 69-yard drive.
It was the second straight game Davis has scored a TD in the first quarter.
After a poor punt by Succop, MSU needed just two plays to score the tying touchdown when Riddell hit Aubrey Bell for a 28-yard touchdown with 5:17 left in the first quarter.
USC drove into the red zone on the ensuing possession before Smelley made a poor decision while scrambling to his right and the ball was intercepted by the Bulldogs a couple of yards into the end zone.
But USC forced a three-and-out, and a nice 19-yard punt return by Munnerlyn set up USC at the MSU 37.
After a pair of false start penalties and a 22-yard pass to Cook to the MSU 15, McKinley caught a short pass on first down from Smelley and darted left before faking a MSU receiver by scooting right and gliding into the end zone.
A questionable holding penalty on Carlos Thomas negated a Munnerlyn touchdown on a punt return with less than 11 minutes remaining in the second quarter.
On MSU's next possession, freshman Travian Robertson was called for a 15-yard face mask penalty to move the ball to the USC 37. The Bulldogs ran the ball six times out of seven plays to set up a third-and-8 play from the USC 11.
It appeared USC had stopped MSU with a sack on third-down but the official flagged Munnerlyn for holding in the end zone. Two plays later, the Bulldogs scored the tying TD on a short run by Dixon with 2:20 left in the second quarter.
With the score knotted at 14-14, USC went into its 2-minute drill. Smelley hit Freddie Brown for a 23-yard gain to the MSU 34, setting the Gamecocks up in field goal range for Succop.
After a pair of false start penalties, USC ran the hook-and-ladder play (Smelley to Cook to Boyd) to gain 16 yards on third down to the MSU 28. Cook caught the ball about 10 yards downfield before lateraling to Boyd just before a MSU defender wrapped him up.
Succop drilled a 45-yard field with two seconds left in the first half to give USC a 17-14 lead.
USC was flagged for nine penalties for 69 yards in the first half.
Smelley was 14-of-25 for 182 yards in the first half. USC had just 32 rushing yards on 15 carries, as the ground game failed to get untracked early.
TOP PLAYER: Sophomore defensive end Eric Norwood just makes plays. He finished with five tackles, including a sack on the final play of the game, and 1.5 tackles for loss to go along with the blocked point.
KEY MOMENT: Trailing 31-21 with just over 11 minutes remaining in the third quarter, Mississippi State appeared ready to get back in the game when they faced a fourth-down from the USC 37. Rather than trying a quarterback sneak, the safe call in that situation, MSU gave the ball to Anthony Dixon, a 240-pound sophomore running back. He was brought down by Cook two yards behind the line of scrimmage. The Bulldogs didn't come close to scoring again.
TURNING POINT: This was is easy. Norwood changed the momentum with his block of a punt by MSU's Blake McAdams with four minutes left in the third quarter. USC took possession at the MSU 27 and Chris Smelley hit McKinley with the go-ahead touchdown pass on the first play from scrimmage. It was reminiscent of the game at Arkansas two years ago when Blake Mitchell connected with McKinley on for the game-winning TD pass on the first play after an interception.
INJURY REPORT: Mike Davis suffered a right quadricep contusion. Cory Boyd suffered a right knee sprain on the first play but returned. Carlos Thomas sustained slight concussion and left the game. Kenny McKinley also suffered a slight concussion. All four players are listed as probable for Thursday night's contest against Kentucky.
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