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Dec. 29, 2006

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) -Steve Spurrier’s offense was humming along in the first half, but the South Carolina defense was doing nothing to stop Houston.

In the final 30 minutes, Spurrier’s Gamecocks got a little D to go with their O.

Defensive end Jordin Lindsey came up with two turnovers for a defense that made the stops that mattered most, and South Carolina beat Houston 44-36 in the Liberty Bowl on Friday for its first bowl victory under Spurrier.

“I still believe our defense can play a lot better,” Spurrier said. “We got out of position in the first half. But to hold Houston to eight points was a very good defensive effort in the second half.”

Lindsey, who intercepted a pass and recovered a fumble that set up 13 points, said they knew they had to turn up the pressure or endure Spurrier’s wrath.

“Basically, we were told to, or we would know what would happen. So we turned it up,” Lindsey said.

Blake Mitchell tied a bowl record by throwing four touchdown passes, Cory Boyd ran for two more TDs as the Gamecocks (8-5) finished Spurrier’s second season with their best record since going 9-3 in 2001.

Kevin Kolb, making his 50th start at quarterback for Houston (10-4) and leading the nation’s sixth-best offense, finished 26-of-39 for 386 yards and three touchdowns.

“We felt like we self-inflicted some things that stopped some of our drives,” Houston coach Art Briles said.

Houston, which went 0-11 in 2001, came in with a six-game winning streak and looking to cap its Conference USA championship season.

Houston led 28-27 at the half – a Liberty Bowl record for points in a half – but South Carolina held the Cougars to 63 yards in the third quarter when the Gamecocks took control. They sacked Kolb three times, forced two turnovers and stopped the Cougars twice on fourth down in the fourth quarter.

The Cougars and Gamecocks combined for 588 yards in the first half, much of it just before halftime. The second quarter took 61 minutes, and a game that was tied at 7 went haywire. In the final three minutes of the half, four TDs were scored in a span 12 plays – the last a 77-yard TD catch by Houston’s Vincent Marshall with 11 seconds left.

The Cougars didn’t score in the second half until Jackie Battle ran in from 3 yards out with 5:42 left. The 2-point conversion cut South Carolina’s lead to 44-36.

Houston outgained South Carolina 527-512, but the Cougars managed only 200 in the second half. It was the first time in Liberty Bowl history both teams topped 500 yards.

Cougars receiver Vincent Marshall, who set a bowl record with 201 yards receiving, said South Carolina’s zone defense took away the middle of the field.

“They had a safety over the top and a man in my face, and they made it hard to throw deep. They blitized and kept people in Kevin’s face,” Marshall said.

With a pair of coaches known for their offensive ingenuity, this had a little of everything: four TDs in a span of 12 plays, a flea flicker for an interception, a punt on fourth-and-goal, a halfback pass and an option by Houston when backed up against its own goal line.

Each quarterback passed for more than 300 yards – a first in the 48-year history of this bowl game.

Ryan Succop kicked a 45-yard field goal into winds gusting up to 20 mph on the Gamecocks’ opening drive of the second half to put South Carolina ahead to stay at 30-28. Mitchell padded the lead with a pair of 43-yard TD passes to Kenny McKinley, the last with 7:39 to go for a 44-28 lead.

Mitchell, the game’s Most Valuable Player, was 19-of-29 for 323 yards.

“Blake did a tremendous job of getting the ball where it needed to be,” Gamecocks receiver Sidney Rice said.

Houston ruined its best scoring chance on the drive after Succop’s field goal.

In the shotgun on third-and-goal at the 8, a bad snap went wide right of Kolb, who tried to chase down the ball and kicked it out of bounds for a penalty. That forced Houston to punt from midfield after having first-and-goal.

Briles credited the South Carolina fans with making it tough to hear, forcing the Cougars to go to a silent count.

“It disrupted our exchange out of the shotgun. That was a big turning point,” Briles said.

Spurrier agreed.

“That was a wonderful play for us,” he said.

South Carolina linebacker Jasper Brinkley stopped Anthony Alridge short on fourth-and-4 with 9:31 left at midfield, forcing the Cougars to turn it over on downs to kill another drive.