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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Steve Spurrier hopes South Carolina's strong finish will lead to the big season in 2015 most expected this year.
The Gamecocks (7-6) closed by winning three of their last four behind a playmaking defense that didn't materialize until late. South Carolina won its fourth straight bowl game Saturday with a 24-21 victory over Miami at the Independence Bowl, stopping the Hurricanes' comeback with fourth-quarter pressure from a defense that hadn't generated much during a 4-5 start.
"To finish with a winning season was really super for all of us," Spurrier said. "It's a boost, a shot in the arm, energy. I told our guys offseason workouts will have a little more pep to them."
The Gamecocks were picked to win the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division this summer, coming off three consecutive 11-2 seasons. But their chances fell apart with three fourth-quarter collapses to Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee. South Carolina led by double digits entering the final 15 minutes of all of them, yet lost all three.
The defeats, particularly the 45-42 overtime home loss to the Vols on Nov. 1 when the Gamecocks led 42-28 with less than five minutes left, had some wondering if Spurrier would even stick around for an 11th season.
But Spurrier said shortly after the season he'd be back, confident his young defense would take a step forward with an additional year of seasoning plus several newcomers expected to step in for immediate help.
The Gamecocks' defense was anchored by its line the previous three seasons, led by the NFL's No. 1 draft pick in Jadeveon Clowney and two other longtime starters in Kelcy Quarles and Chaz Sutton.
South Carolina also lost both starting cornerbacks from 2013 in Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree — subtractions that were too much to overcome early on.
Things began to turn in mid-November at Florida when the Gamecocks rallied from a 17-10 deficit in the second half with a blocked field goal and a blocked punt to topple the Gators 23-20 in overtime.
Against Miami, South Carolina's defense held the Hurricanes to two opening-half field goals after they twice drove inside the Gamecocks' 10-yard line.
When Miami rallied in the final period, the Gamecocks forced a missed field goal and picked up Duke Johnson's fumble to hold on.
South Carolina linebacker Jonathan Walton said his team's pass rush was the difference. The Gamecocks posted two sacks — they came in with just 12 in 12 games — and were around Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya much of the game.
"For the first time this season we could look into the quarterback's eyes and see he was shook," Walton said.
Walton and fellow sophomore Skai Moore will return to lead the defense. The secondary will feature Chris Lammons and Al Harris Jr., two freshmen who struggled at times but combined for 11 starts.
The defensive line, last in SEC sacks this season, should get a jolt from Dexter Wideman and junior college prospect Marquavius Lewis.
"We've got help coming in January," Spurrier said.
South Carolina will need a quick start from the defense as it reconfigures its offense from this year. Quarterback Dylan Thompson set the school single-season passing yardage record as a senior and tailback Mike Davis, who rushed for more than 2,000 yards the past two seasons, has announced his intention to leave for the NFL draft.
That likely means more will be expected out of receiver Pharoh Cooper, a sophomore who finished with 69 catches for 1,136 yards.
Spurrier said reserves Connor Mitch, Perry Orth and Michael Scarnecchia — who combined for three incompletions — will compete in the spring for Thompson's job.
That's an issue for later on. Right now, Spurrier's happy with his team's finish.
"This was a special win for us, especially after that nightmare vs. Tennessee," the coach said. "Our guys found a way to win three of our last four."