Slippery on the outside with good speed and a quick first step, South Carolina’s Ace Sanders, a junior wideout from Bradenton, Fla., made early Heisman noise this season with a pair of jaw-dropping punt returns in wins over Missouri and Georgia.
The SEC’s Co-Special Teamer of the Year used the regular season – the 10th-ranked Gamecocks’ second straight 10-win campaign — to set up the main course, a smorgasbord of pass-catching and return skills in the bowl finale.
His MVP performance in Tuesday’s Outback Bowl was a coming out party of sorts, a tasty three-touchdown afternoon inside Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium highlighted by a nifty 63-yard punt return for a score and a crucial fourth down reception on the game’s final drive in front of family, friends and some 25,000 Gamecock fans.
Inside the final two minutes of South Carolina’s exciting 33-28 victory, Sanders snared a 6-yard catch with a well-timed dive, caught a pass for eight yards to midfield and gave the Gamecocks a first down in Michigan territory with 28 ticks remaining.
Sanders limped off the field before Bruce Ellington’s 32-yard go-ahead score to a loud ovation from the hometown crowd. It seemed fitting that the 5-foot-8 motivator on offense was singled out with his own moment to shine after finishing with a career-high nine catches for 92 yards and two touchdowns.
Sanders’ acrobatic 31-yard score in the back of the end zone with eight minutes to play came just after Jadeveon Clowney made the hit heard ‘round the world on Michigan running back Vincent Smith and recovered a fumble. Clowney violently knocked off Smith’s helmet and the palmed the football to regain possession after the Wolverines had converted a fake punt for a disputed first down the previous play.
Sanders jumped in the air on the Gamecock sideline after the Hendrick Award winner’s hit stick and fastened his chinstrap for another go. Head coach Steve Spurrier went for a quick strike with the momentum and Connor Shaw hit Sanders between defenders.
Gamecock quarterbacks Shaw and Dylan Thompson combined to throw for 341 yards and four touchdowns and each threw passes on the final drive. Spurrier said it was the first time in his coaching career a pair of quarterbacks led his football team down the field to win a game.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever given two quarterbacks a game ball, but today I said: ‘Hey, we’ve got to give them to both you guys,’” Spurrier said.
“Both those young men are just so super team-oriented. There’s no jealousy, nothing. … Those guys are just really, really good teammates. Wonderful team players,” the coach added. “We tried to tell Connor: ‘It’s your game.’ And it was his game, but Dylan was going to play. He understood that. It worked beautifully as it turned out.”
While the Shaw-Thompson battle under center will be an interesting one this spring, Sanders and Clowney have elevated themselves into the preseason Heisman conversation with the country’s top defensive end being a front-runner.
Michigan did a heck of a job bottling up South Carolina’s single-season sack record holder most of the contest but couldn’t keep the beast contained for four quarters. The Wolverines neutralized the Gamecocks’ front four enough to rush for 141 yards, but Michigan’s secondary struggled throughout against Spurrier’s dual passers.
Michigan’s Denard Robinson, a Deerfield, Fla. native, set an NCAA record for career rushing yards for a QB with a 100-yard outing, but it wasn’t enough. Robinson’s 4,495 yards is 15 more than West Virginia’s Pat White.
South Carolina’s second consecutive New Year’s Day bowl victory locks up another 11-win season and effectively re-introduced Sanders to the college football world as an elite playmaker.
Photo Credit: Jeff Griffith-USA TODAY Sports