Scott Davis: Swag flickers to life

On3 imageby:Scott Davis11/20/23

Scott has followed South Carolina athletics for over 40 years and provides commentary from a fan perspective. He writes a weekly newsletter (sign up here) year-round and a column during football season that’s published each Monday on GamecockCentral.

I kept revisiting the scene of the crime.

I knew I shouldn’t be doing it, but in the final moments of South Carolina’s nail-biting thriller against Kentucky on Saturday night, I found my mind drifting back a few weeks. My thoughts – racing, uncontrolled, wild and free – kept being sucked back towards the waning minutes of the Gamecocks’ game against Florida.

That was the game when I found myself standing uselessly in front of a television, repeating the same words over and over: Somebody’s gonna make a play right here. Somebody’s gonna make a play.

But it was the players in Gator uniforms who kept making the plays, and before any of us knew what had happened, Florida had somehow emerged victorious from Williams-Brice Stadium despite needing to overcome a double-digit fourth-quarter deficit.

I probably don’t need to tell you those moments left me scarred, bruised and a little afraid to hope as the season progressed.

And after the Gamecocks staggered through the next few weeks in a daze, finishing up the October of our nightmares to stand at 2-6 with four games remaining, it looked like those final few moments of the Florida game had torpedoed the entire 2023 season. This was the emotional baggage I carried into the closing seconds of a monumentally important matchup with suddenly loathsome Kentucky, a matchup that inevitably turned into a down-to-the-wire, nail-gnawing stomach-turner.

All that was at stake was bowl eligibility, the continuation of positive momentum in the Shane Beamer Era, a growing rivalry with the Wildcats that has quietly morphed into one of the most important games on the South Carolina schedule, and the 2023 season.

Is “totally and utterly afraid to watch” the right phrase to describe me towards the end of the Kentucky game? It’s accurate. You probably know the feeling.

I wanted to be the guy who believed, the guy standing in front of my television set confidently repeating that mantra: Somebody’s gonna make a play right here.

But I wasn’t. Instead, I was locked into a catatonic ball on a chair in my den, opening and closing my eyes at random, and breathing unsteadily. Be glad you weren’t there to see me in this unfortunate and diminished state.

Then something interesting happened.

As they’ve been doing throughout the last few weeks in November, South Carolina’s resilient bunch kept making the plays they had to make to win the game. In the Jacksonville State victory, it was Gamecock linebacker Stone Blanton stepping in front of a pass and turning it into a Pick Six to seal the win. Against Vanderbilt, it was just about everyone in a South Carolina uniform.

Saturday night, those decisive big plays came in bunches.

They came when Spencer Rattler found Xavier Leggette in the end zone on a crucial third down in the fourth quarter to put the Gamecocks back in front. And they came when the South Carolina defense kept stifling the Wildcats time and time again as the clock ticked towards zero – a forced fumble here, a tipped pass there, a turnover on downs, whatever it took.

This time, somebody did make a play.

Lots of somebodies.

And when it was all over and the Gamecocks had ground out a 17-14 heartstopper in front of an electric Williams-Brice, South Carolina’s season had improbably flickered back to life. That 2-6 record from October had now been transformed to 5-6, and that seemingly insurmountable four-game winning streak that was necessary to extend the 2023 campaign into the postseason had been whittled down to one, single solitary game.

Improbably, there was still a flickering pulse to this season.

And flickering too was the swag South Carolina had found so many times during the first two years under Shane Beamer.

Belief was in the air, for the first time in 2023.

Yes, it was. In the wee hours after the victory, a video popped up on the Gamecock Football X account of Beamer entering a jubilant postgame locker room to the blasting strains of Soulja Boy’s “Turn My Swag On.” It was the song Beamer had enthusiastically rocked out to before the 2022 season began, the song that turned Kentucky coach Mark Stoops’ stomach enough that he felt the need to dismiss the fun as mere silliness and unseriousness, the song the Gamecocks sang in the visiting locker room last year when they defeated Stoops and Kentucky on the road in Lexington.

And it’s the song ringing in our ears right now, as South Carolina prepares for the annual blood feud with the boys up the road (whose own season has recently been rescued from the brink).

Weeks ago, Beamer told the media and the fans that his team couldn’t set their minds to winning four in a row: They needed to win one first.

Now we’re here.

Can you go win one game? Can you win one game, reset the narrative on this entire year, start over, turn this whole mess into a happy ending?
Can you win one game, one time, against this one team?

We’ll find out this coming Saturday.

For now, there’s swag in the South Carolina locker room, and in our hearts and in our chests and in our minds, though we never thought we’d feel it in what seemed like a lost season.

Should be an interesting Thanksgiving, no?

The Mark Stoops Game Balls of the Week

There were multiple South Carolina Gamecocks who deserved to be honored as the namesake of the weekly Game Balls, and yet the commemoration will instead be bestowed upon Kentucky coach Mark Stoops. It’s not as crazy as it sounds. Let’s hand out a few Stoops statues to the following…

Mark Stoops – Not much longer than a year ago, Kentucky had won an unimaginable seven of eight games against a South Carolina program whose fans never dreamed they’d be looking up at the squad from Lexington with envy. Then a very strange series of events occurred which we’ve all recorded in our memory banks: Shane Beamer and the South Carolina social media team had a little fun creating a hype video that featured Beamer gyrating to Soulja Boy to kick off the 2022 season, Stoops dismissed the video by referring to “stupid sunglasses and dancing” and suggesting that he had created a rock-solid, everlasting culture in Lexington as opposed to the mere “climate changing” that was taking place in Columbia, followed by South Carolina winning in Lexington, followed by a sunglasses-clad Beamer dancing with players in the locker room, followed by Stoops pretending last week that he “hadn’t noticed” any burgeoning rivalry with South Carolina and insisting the upcoming game didn’t mean any more or less to him than any other.

Followed by South Carolina beating Kentucky. Again.

Followed by more locker room dancing.

In addition to helping bring Soulja Boy back into the public consciousness for the first time in a decade, this entire saga has also helped to develop a potent new SEC rivalry (these two fan bases are genuinely starting to despise one another), and Kentucky is 0-2 against the Gamecocks since Stoops complained about Beamer turning his swag on. In other words, none of this would have been possible without you, Mark. God bless you, buddy.

Hatred – Could there possibly be a more hated individual in the state of Kentucky right now than Shane Beamer? This is a good thing. When people hate you, that can only mean one thing: You’re beating them. When Beamer returns to Lexington next season, he’ll be greeted with a chorus of boos. And it will be music to my ears.

Soulja Boy – On a night when “Sandstorm” creator Darude was inside Williams-Brice Stadium (wearing a “I’m just happy to be here even though I’m not entirely sure what’s going on around me” smile), it was Soulja Boy who stole the musical spotlight as “Turn My Swag On” once again became a locker room anthem. I wouldn’t be surprised to see that song re-enter the Top 40 at this point.

Group Hugs – My wife and I hosted our nieces and my mother- and sister-in-law over the weekend. They’d come down to metro Atlanta from Greenville to do a little big city Christmas shopping, and we all agonized with one another throughout the game, leading to a jubilant scene when the clock finally ticked to triple zeros and we pulled in for a mammoth group hug that shot me straight into the holiday spirit zone.

Xavier Leggette – Two touchdown catches. Nine receptions. What else can you say about this man? For much of 2023, the Rattler-to-Leggette connection has represented South Carolina’s offense in its entirety. For the Gamecocks to have a chance at a sixth win, we’ll need the X Factor one more time.

Tonka Hemingway – The big defensive lineman made the big plays at crunch time, recovering a Wildcat fumble (or catching a Wildcat interception, however you chose to look at it) and batting away a pass to secure the W in the final seconds.

The Opportunity to Play Your Way Into the Postseason – Can you believe we’re here? We’re here.

South Carolina-Kentucky Deflated Balls

When South Carolina players end an evening by dancing in the locker room to the immortal strains of Soulja Boy, I’m tempted to wipe off the Deflated Balls for the week. But, um, I can’t.

That Nagging Sense That This Late-Season Resurgence Isn’t Quite the Same as the Two Previous Late-Season Resurgences Under Beamer – In 2021, the Gamecocks regenerated their season by routing Florida. Last year, they regenerated their season by routing Tennessee. This year, they’ve patched together three straight wins in a journey that has at times felt like riding a bicycle down a steep hill without any brakes. As sweet as that win against Kentucky most certainly was, it wasn’t the kind of dominating performance that left you salivating about the thought of playing a suddenly rejuvenated Clemson. Still, it’s a win that will show up in the record books in the exact same way that last year’s Tennessee win did, so let’s roll with that.

Never-ending Pressure – South Carolina’s offensive line – battling injuries, inexperience and more – has struggled all season to keep quarterback Spencer Rattler upright. And Rattler once again found himself running for his life on Saturday, leading Beamer to blurt to an SEC Network sideline reporter at halftime that “we’re getting our freaking you-know-whats kicked up front on the offensive line.” Frustrating, frustrating, frustrating. Speaking of which…

Devastating Penalties – Continuing another unfortunate theme from 2023, the Gamecocks were flagged for nine penalties, many of them coming at the most inopportune times possible.

The Running Game’s Disappearance – Yet another continuation of an unfortunate theme from 2023? Yep. Injuries have decimated the South Carolina running back corps to such a staggering degree that the team inserted backup quarterback LaNorris Sellers in for some Wildcat-style action and ran rushing plays for Leggette in an effort to get the ground game moving. Nothing worked. Very little has for much of 2023 when it comes to South Carolina’s running attack, which mustered a meager 52 yards against Kentucky.

Caution – I want to give my whole heart to this winning streak and to let myself believe as the rivalry game approaches. I’m struggling to get there. Maybe you are, too.

And maybe we should instead take that caution and throw it to the wind this week.

After all, isn’t that what football season is for?

Isn’t hope the foundation of the holiday season?

Don’t we wait all year for these moments, these weeks, these games like the one we have coming up?

You had to win four in a row to stay alive.

Now, unbelievably, that number is down to one.

One game, one time, against this one team.

Can we get it done one more time?

Friends, if we cannot allow ourselves to hope so, why are we watching at all?

Take that caution, throw it to the wind, turn up Soulja Boy and dance.

Tell me how you’re feeling as the rivalry game looms by writing me at [email protected].

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