South Carolina Football: Ranking the top plays in Gamecock history

South Carolina football beat Missouri largely behind the efforts of wide receiver Bruce Ellington. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
South Carolina football beat Missouri largely behind the efforts of wide receiver Bruce Ellington. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports /
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South Carolina football fans have witnessed lots of things on the football field. They’ve witnessed triumph, heartbreak, and downright embarrassment. They’ve witnessed the unbelievable, both in the positive and the negative sense of the word. They’ve witnessed victories and defeats (and, oddly enough, more ties than almost every other program in college football history).

Gamecock fans who have been around for a while, though, can also attest to the fact that they have witnessed their favorite team make amazing plays on the gridiron. But which plays were the best of all the plays?

Creating a list like this is so outrageously subjective that it is almost impossible. However, for the purpose of this list, multiple factors will be considered. Impressiveness (How outstanding was the play itself?), impact (How big was the play to the team’s success?), and improbability (How rare is the play?) will be the three main considerations for each play.

Honorable Mention

Brad Edwards vs. Clemson: Brad Edwards will get a convoy!” Many Gamecocks remember the famous call for Edwards’ interception of Clemson quarterback Rodney Williams. Edwards picked off Williams and raced back 40 yards for the score to secure the 20-7 victory over the 8th-ranked Tigers. The ’87 Gamecocks were one of the most exciting teams in program history, and Edwards’ interception might be the most famous moment of the entire year.

DJ Swearinger vs. Arkansas (and the Referees): In the third quarter against Arkansas in 2012, DJ Swearinger was called for a horse collar tackle and a helmet-to-helmet hit on back-to-back plays for 30 yards worth of penalties. The next play, Swearinger intercepted Tyler Wilson and took the pick 70 yards for the score. Not to ruin his streak of penalties, #36 tossed the ball into the student section to bring his tab up to 45 penalty yards in a 3-play span.

Hank Campbell vs. Tennessee: During a tightly-contested game against Tennessee in Carolina’s first year in the SEC, the Gamecocks were less than two minutes from the upset of the Vols. Running back Mose Phillips had other ideas, though, and broke off one of the best catch-and-runs in Tennessee history to bring the score to 24-23. UT head coach Johnny Majors elected to go for the win with a 2-point conversion.

Majors ran a play for his other back James Stewart for the 2-point try. Tennessee quarterback Heath Shuler hit Stewart in the flat, but big Hank Campbell read it immediately and made a tremendous tackle in space to bring Stewart down short of the goal line to preserve the Gamecock victory.

Dylan Thompson vs. Michigan: In a game loaded with memorable plays (Ace Sanders’ punt return, Jadeveon Clowney’s “The Hit”), the biggest play on offense might have come from a backup. Dylan Thompson, though, was no ordinary backup as he had gotten significant game action up to this point in his career, including leading the Gamecocks to victory on the road against Clemson.

Before the drive’s final play, the oft-injured Connor Shaw had to leave the game with an ailment. In stepped Thompson who cooly delivered a purposefully underthrown ball that was put where only Bruce Ellington could adjust. The Gamecocks receiver came back to the ball and then jogged into the end zone for the winning score that secured Carolina’s second-straight 11-win season.

Cory Boyd vs. Middle Tennessee State: This play doesn’t make the list due to the stakes (and, frankly, the competition level) being extremely low. However, in 2006, Cory Boyd took a screen pass destined for a short gain for 52 yards, instead, after breaking 9 tackles. The play is one of the most impressive non-touchdowns in Gamecock history.

Jake Bentley and Deebo Samuel vs. NC State: One of the finest throw-and-catch combinations in Carolina history, Jake Bentley escaped pressure from NC State rusher Freddie Phillips, Jr. and slung the ball 50 yards on the run. Deebo Samuel stuck one hand out and snagged the Bentley-fired bullet for the touchdown with a defender breathing down his neck. It was one of three total touchdowns for #1 that day, and all three were needed as Carolina won by just seven points.

Raynard Brown vs. Florida State: The 1984 Black Magic season saw the Gamecocks match up with the Florida State Seminoles in a showdown of elite teams. Running back Thomas Dendy had a big touchdown run (sometimes called the “Dendy Spindy”), but it was overshadowed by another tremendous play.

Dendy’s backup Raynard Brown took the opening kickoff of the second half back for a score in impressive fashion. Brown picked the ball up at the 1-yard line and ran straight into a wall of four Seminole coverage men. Instead of going down, however, Brown simply bounced off of the white and gold jerseys and kept his feet. He then outraced the rest of the Seminole coverage unit to the end zone to help lead Carolina to a 38-26 victory.

Jadeveon Clowney and Melvin Ingram vs. Georgia: Against Georgia in 2011, a fifth-year senior defensive lineman and a true freshman teamed up for a huge moment. 5-star freshman superstar Jadeveon Clowney showed the college football world that he was the real deal when he raced past his blocker and forced an Aaron Murray fumble with his first career sack.

What made the play remarkable was that he didn’t tackle Murray hard or hit the ball out of his hand; instead, Clowney slung Murray around with so much force that the ball popped out of his hands where Melvin Ingram could recover it and scoot into the end zone for the touchdown that iced the game for the Gamecocks.

The Kicks: No need to do a full write-up of each one of these kicks, but four game-winning field goals stand out above the others. Daniel Weaver broke Ohio State Buckeye hearts with a 42-yard boot in the Outback Bowl after the 2001 season, Josh Brown inched over a 47-yarder to beat Tennessee in Knoxville in 2005, Elliott Fry kicked a 55-yard bomb to beat Vanderbilt in 2016, and Parker White beat Louisiana Tech in 2017 with a 31-yard kick.

Weaver’s was a big kick in a big moment for the second leg of back-to-back Outback Bowl wins over the Buckeyes, Brown’s delivered the Gamecocks’ first-ever win over the Vols in Knoxville, Fry’s started the Will Muschamp era with a victory, and White’s was the first career field goal try for the eventual all-time leading scorer in Carolina football history.

Dylan Thompson vs. Clemson: This play was as much about the moment as impressiveness. In 2012, starting quarterback Connor Shaw missed the Clemson game due to injury. Backup quarterback Dylan Thompson had a good day against the Tigers, but his most memorable play came on the ground.

In what is known as the “Dylan Thompson Game” or the “Jadeveon Clowney Game” (Clowney had 4.5 sacks), Thompson picked up three first downs with his legs, but the best one was a 3rd and 19 quarterback draw that set up the score that put the game away. Thompson took the snap and ran right through the teeth of the Tiger defense to gain 20 yards for the crucial conversion.

Brandon Bennett and Reggie Richardson’s “The Return” vs. Clemson: In what would become one of the most lopsided South Carolina victories over their rival from the Upstate, Brandon Bennett took a kickoff in a game tied 7-7 and faked a return before throwing a 30-yard lateral back to the other side of the field where Reggie Richardson was waiting.

Richardson, one of the fastest players on the Carolina squad, dashed all the way inside the 10-yard line where he was only stopped by tripping over one of his blockers. The return set up a touchdown by Bennett on the next play, and the rout was on. The Gamecocks would thump the Tigers 33-7 that day, granting South Carolina some needed confidence that would help fuel them in their first-ever bowl victory a few weeks later (a win over West Virginia in the Carquest Bowl).

Deebo’s Returns: The best kickoff returner in South Carolina football history was Deebo Samuel. The speedster took back four kicks in his career, and all four were impressive. He had one house call against Western Carolina in 2016, he had two touchdowns in his only two returns of 2017 (against NC State and Missouri), and he scored off a muffed kickoff in 2018 against Ole Miss.

Xavier Legette vs. Texas A&M: Some recency bias could be at play here, but Xavier Legette’s 100-yard kick return against Texas A&M deserves more love than it gets. Not only did the Gamecock receiver take a kick back for 100 yards, but he did so without a shoe for over 60 yards of the return!

The touchdown was also a huge momentum builder in a game that the Gamecocks ended up winning by one score, their first ever over the Aggies. Legette broke a couple of tackles along the way, adding to the moment of one of the loudest “pops” in Williams-Brice Stadium history.

Alshon Jeffery vs. Lots of People: Alshon Jeffery is one of the best receivers in college football history, and he seemingly had vacuums attached to his hands on jump balls. In his career, Jeffery made astonishing one-handed catches against The Citadel, Arkansas, and Kentucky, made tough grabs in traffic against Clemson and Florida, and brought down jump balls against Nebraska and SC State.

Perhaps the best one, though, was a ridiculous one-handed grab against Alabama in which Crimson Tide defensive back Dre Kirkpatrick was draped all over him. Jeffery snagged the pass out of the air, spun away from Kirkpatrick, and scampered inside the 10-yard line to set up the touchdown that put the game out of reach.

A sterling run by Sharpe…a sharp run by Sterling vs. Duke: One of the best players to ever wear the garnet and black, Sterling Sharpe was more than just an electric wide receiver. In addition to his usual receiver duties and also carrying the ball from scrimmage at times, Sharpe was a dynamic kick returner. In a win against old ACC rival Duke in 1985, Sharpe broke seven tackles on his way to the end zone on the opening kick of the second half.

In a montage of 1980s highlights called by ESPN’s Chris Berman, the broadcasting legend remarked that the return was a “sterling run by Sharpe” and a “sharp run by Sterling.” The 102-yard return was one of two Gamecock plays on the “Plays of the 1980s” list along with Mike Hold’s impossible escape job against Pittsburgh from the same season.