Coming into Saturday's game against SEC East rival Kentucky, Justice Cunningham had 14 receptions in the first 32 games of his career as a South Carolina football player.
He increased that total by 36 percent on Saturday.
Cunningham, who had never caught more than two passes in a single game, erupted for five receptions for 46 yards and one touchdown (his first career TD) in the 54-3 trouncing of the woeful Wildcats that guaranteed USC a share of first place in the Eastern Division for at least another week following Saturday's action.
And no one was happier for Cunningham, a native of Pageland, S.C., than head coach Steve Spurrier.
"Justice had an excellent day," Spurrier said. "I heard one of our coaches say that he may hustle more than any guy on the offense. He blocks, he blocks and he blocks. He can catch some passes and block some more. He's a really valuable player for us. Gosh, out of the 92 snaps, he must have played 50. We do play two tight ends a lot, but nobody thinks we do."
Only Alshon Jeffery (six catches for 95 yards) had more receptions than Cunningham. Together with Rory Anderson, USC's tight ends combined for six receptions and 92 yards. Anderson was wide open for a 46-yard gain on third-and-seven during USC's opening drive. Moments later, Connor Shaw hit Jeffery for a 20-yard touchdown.
"We were sitting around and somebody said, 'Why don't we throw to the tight ends more?'" Spurrier joked. "That was just the game plan."
After his huge afternoon, Cunningham has 19 career receptions for 206 yards and one touchdown. He credited Shaw for finding him in the seams of the Kentucky defense.
"The team rallied around Connor. He had some good practices this week and everybody felt he was going to have a good game today," Cunningham said. "He had to find the open man and it seems like he did it every time. It's always nice to get a catch or two, but I'm here to do my job whatever they need me to do."
ALWAYS WANTING MORE: Spurrier is a perfectionist, so even though USC scored 54 points and totaled 639 yards of offense, he pointed out USC's mistakes in his post-game press conference, bemoaning the missed opportunities.
"LSU didn't move the ball on Kentucky, so I didn't know if we could move it like this or not," Spurrier said. "But I knew we had to try. We had a good start but then we sputtered around. If we had been really sharp today, with as many opportunities as we had, we could have scored 70 or 80 points today. But 54 was enough. We didn't play a great game. We played a pretty good game. I've seen a lot of offenses play better than we played today, that's for sure. We had so many opportunities. Kentucky just couldn't stay on the field. We had a lot of plays."
But he gave a nod to Shaw for leading an offensive resurgence after USC struggled to score points in the last three games.
"He practiced very well this week. In fact, he was probably sharper in practice than he was today," Spurrier said. "But he threw some beautiful balls in there. We had a lot of good plays called at the right time. He threw them perfectly and that was the result we got. We missed a few, but Connor has a chance to play better with the more he plays. This was a very good start for him."
ELLINGTON RUNS 'WILD': The afternoon didn't begin well for Bruce Ellington when he returned the opening kickoff 19 yards before fumbling at the SC 26. Kentucky recovered the loose ball and drove as far as the 8-yard line until the USC defense stiffened and forced the Wildcats to settle for a short field goal.
But Ellington redeemed himself in the fourth quarter when he took a hand-off out of the Wildcat, sped around the right corner and raced down the sideline for a 61-yard touchdown to give USC a 40-3 lead. Ellington said the play is called '38Q.'
"The guys did a great job blocking," Ellington said. "Brandon Wilds did a great job on the outside blocking the corner. I just took it down the sidelines. I thought I had stepped out (of bounds) but the ref didn't blow his official, so I kept running. It was exciting just to get in the end zone in college."
The score was Ellington's first career touchdown and produced a loud "Bruce" cheer from the crowd.
"He's a great runner. He hit the corner and took off," Spurrier said. "We were trying to figure what to run. We were running that other Wildcat type thing. Coach (Sean) Elliott said why don't we just put him back there and let him run the sweep out there. I thought he was going to make 8 to 10 yards and the next thing I knew he had turned the corner. Somebody up top said he's gone, they can't catch him."
WHITLOCK WITH ANOTHER PICK: Senior cornerback C.C. Whitlock had two interceptions in his first 38 games as a Gamecock. He has three picks in the last two games, including one on Saturday. Unlike last week, he made sure the opponent didn't get an opportunity to strip the ball, running straight out of bounds at the UK 28 with 1:30 left in the third quarter.
"I didn't want the situation to be the same as last week when on the first pick I got the guy on the other team stripped me," Whitlock said. "I just did what was best and got out of bounds."
Whitlock is tied with Antonio Allen for the team lead in interceptions with three.
THE DYNAMIC DUO: Marcus Lattimore (102 rushing yards) and Jeffery (six receptions for 95 yards, two TD) were, as always, major components of the USC offense on Saturday. They also continued to climb up the charts on several USC lists.
Lattimore now has 1,976 career rushing yards in 19 games, putting him 15th on USC's all-time yardage list. Barring anything unforeseen, the sophomore from Duncan, S.C., should surpass the 2,000-yard plateau next week when USC squares off with Mississippi State in Starkville, Miss.
When he does pass the 2,000-yard mark, Lattimore will become the 15th running back in school history to have more than 2,000 yards rushing.
"We just want to be a team that can run the ball whenever we want and throw the ball whenever we want," Lattimore said. "If we can do that, we're going to be a real good offense. It felt good watching all these guys get into the end zone."
He didn't have a touchdown in Saturday's win for the first time this season, though he reached the century mark in rushing for the eighth time in his career. USC is 8-0 in those games. The Gamecocks also improved to 11-0 when Lattimore has 20 or carries in a single game.
Jeffery, meanwhile, now has 159 career receptions to move into fourth place on USC's all-time list. He zipped past Jermale Kelly (153) and Robert Brooks (156) during Saturday's game. He is also tied with three others for second place on USC's all-time receiving touchdowns list with 19.
"Coach Spurrier told me earlier in the week that we were going to throw it a lot and we were going to air it out," Jeffery said. "That's what I expected, so it wasn't any different to me."
Finally, his 95 receiving yards pulled him to within 74 yards of Kenny McKinley, the career leader with 2,781 yards. Jeffery has 2,707 receiving yards.
"He was open a bunch, but we didn't hit him every time he was open," Spurrier said. "But we hit him several times."
BUNCH OF FIRSTS: A lot of players contributed to the cause in Saturday's 54-3 win over Kentucky. In fact, several players posted career firsts during the win:
-- Anderson made his first career start -- Cunningham caught the first TD pass of his career -- Ellington scored his first career TD on a 61-yard gallop in the fourth quarter -- Nick Jones scored his first career touchdown on a 25-yard pass -- Andrew Clifford saw his first action of the season and threw his first career TD pass with seven minutes remaining -- Dylan Thompson scored his first touchdown on an 8-yard run in the fourth quarter -- Chaz Sutton had his first career start -- Victor Hampton intercepted the first pass of his career -- Reginald Bowens recorded his first career forced fumble at the end of the first half -- Byron Jerideau had his first career fumble recovery
Spurrier asserted having so many players contribute to the cause should boost team morale.
"Team camaraderie is always better when all these guys get to play and contribute," Spurrier said. "They'll come out to practice Monday night and everybody will be happy. So, let's get better. They know they have a chance to play in the games, so that's always good for your team."
Lattimore said watching Jones catch his first career TD reminded him of the days when they were teammates at Byrnes.
"It felt like deja vu back at Byrnes again," Lattimore smiled. "He would score, I would score. He got one. I was proud of him. He's worked hard, so he deserved it."
THE KENTUCKY PERSPECTIVE: Kentucky entered Saturday's game at or near the bottom of all the major offensive categories in the SEC. Obviously, they did nothing to improve their position in the 54-3 loss to USC, finishing with 96 total yards, including just 17 through the air. Quarterbacks Morgan Newton (4-of-20) and Maxwell Smith (0-of-4) were a combined 4-of-24 throwing the ball with three interceptions. A pair of unsuccessful flea flickers dropped UK's completion percentage in the game to 15.4 percent (4-for-26).
After being routed in their first three SEC games, Kentucky has a week off before the schedule gets a little easier with three straight home games against Jacksonville State, Mississippi State and Ole Miss. UK head coach Joker Phillips said the bye week will give the Wildcats a chance to lick their wounds and figure some things out.
"The thing that we have is a much-needed two-week break to figure out those answers," Phillips said. "We've got to figure out our best personnel; we've got to figure out our best schemes and rep them over and over and over again. Our passing game is a lost part of our game. That's one of the things we have done around here really well. And we have yet to execute a passing game in the last couple games that's looked like one. I'm talking about protection, throwing and catching, all the things involved in throwing and catching the ball."
-- USC is 5-1 at the halfway mark of the regular season for the third time under Spurrier.
-- USC now leads the all-time series with Kentucky by a 15-7-1 margin, including a 7-3-1 mark in Columbia. Since joining the SEC, the Gamecocks are 14-6 against Kentucky. UK has lost six games in a row at Williams-Brice Stadium.
-- Spurrier is now 18-1 against Kentucky in his coaching career.
-- Spurrier talked about DE Melvin Ingram as if he hadn't played in Saturday's game. But the senior did indeed play and finished with one tackle and one pass breakup. Spurrier expressed surprise when informed Ingram had played. "I didn't see him go in," Spurrier said. "I guess I was trying to find out what went wrong on that last play we ran."
-- When Shaw hit Jeffery with a 20-yard TD pass in the first quarter, it marked the first time this season USC had scored on its opening drive.
-- Kentucky's early field goal means USC's opponents have scored the first points in all six games this season. Thus, USC is credited with five come-from-behind victories.
-- D.L. Moore caught his first TD pass of the season, giving him four in his career.
-- The USC secondary has eight interceptions in the last two games.
-- Cunningham said Spurrier was calmer in practice this past week