SPARTANBURG, S.C. - The state of South Carolina may have never produced a better group of defensive backs than its current senior class. Just ask a pair of the nation's top quarterbacks. Joe Cox and Jonathan Crompton were each victims of that highly-touted secondary in South Carolina's 35-21 upset in the 68th annual Shrine Bowl Saturday afternoon.
North Carolina was never really able to take advantage of the arm strength and deadly accuracy of Cox and Crompton, who watched their well-thrown deep passes get batted to the turf all game long. Cox, who verbally committed to Georgia months ago, threw two costly interceptions and finished with just 89 passing yards. Crompton, who committed to Tennessee earlier this year, was more effective, but both signal callers completed 10 of their 22 passes.
Even North Carolina's highly-touted running backs Toney Baker and Montario Hardesty only encountered mild success, combining to turn 26 carries into 112 yards.
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A quarterback who committed to Division I-AA Furman actually grabbed the spotlight. Jordan Sorrels earned offensive MVP honors for South Carolina after completing 18-of-30 passes for 173 yards and a touchdown.
Most of the blame for Cox and Crompton's uncharacteristic performances and Baker and Hardesty's inability to break free for long gains fell on a trio of four-star defensive backs.
J.C. Neal intercepted Cox twice in the second half and was named South Carolina's defensive MVP. Cox may not have to face Neal again since he is leaning towards a pair of ACC schools - N.C. State and Virginia Tech - and might end up playing receiver at the next level.
"On the first interception, I was just playing my area and the passed was tipped and I ran underneath it," Neal said. "I got back to the sidelines and one of my teammates told me to watch the quarterback's eyes and that is what I did on the second pick. I just watched (Cox)."
Safety C.J. Byrd (Georgia) finished a team-high five solo tackles and delivered one of the biggest hit of the game, knocking Josh Briscoe (Tennessee) to the ground after he made a catch near the sideline.
Safety Jamie Robinson was matched up heavily with four-star receiver Mohamed Massaquoi (Georgia) ï¿½ considered the best receiver on either team ï¿½ and performed well. Massaquoi did catch seven passes for 94 yards (both game highs) and a TD, but nearly 15 passes were thrown his way, including a pair that Robinson broke up. Robinson also intercepted a throw from Crompton in the final minute to end a late comeback from North Carolina.
"(Massaquoi) is a real good receiver," Robinson said. "He is fast and he has moves. I knocked down a couple of passes thrown to him and he caught a couple on me, so we are even."
Nearly half of Florida State's coaching staff chatted with Robinson after the game. He is heading to FSU for an official visit on Jan. 7, and is also considering Clemson and Virginia Tech.
Three-star safety Damien Wright (South Carolina) blocked a punt that linebacker Mike Hill recovered for a touchdown and added four tackles and a sack. Three-star cornerback Hadrian Lewis added three tackles.
Even the secondary's second-stringers Miguel Graham and Millhouse Tillman, who aren't major recruits, combined to break up three passes. Graham prevented a touchdown in the second quarter, swatting a perfectly thrown pass from Crompton to Massaquoi in the corner of the end zone.
Early in the third quarter, North Carolina was the only team to have reached the end zone. The heavy favorites were actually holding onto a 7-6 lead.
South Carolina then scored 28 unanswered points all from turnovers, beginning with Sorrels' 30-yard touchdown pass to Terrance Smith that was set up by Zeke Clark's fumble.
On the ensuing drive, Vance Walker deflected Cox's pass and Neal quickly settled under it. He raced 71 yards before Baker made a touchdown-saving tackle at the South Carolina 5. Mike Davis took a handoff on the next play and stretched out over the end zone to give his team a 17-10 lead.
Some miscommunication between Cox and receiver James "Cooter" Arnold caused the next interception. Cox fired a short pass in Arnold's direction over the middle of the field, but Arnold continued to run downfield as the ball landed in the hands of a waiting Neal. On the next play, Reynaldo Hunter took a reverse, weaved his way through traffic for a 16-yard touchdown run.
"Earlier in the game we were going to run (that play)," said Hunter of the reverse. "But, the defense we were facing at the time wasn't good for that play so we decided to run it later. Then we saw they were in the type of defense that is great for it, without anybody on the other end."
After three straight incomplete passes from Crompton, Wright blocked a punt and Hill recovered it in the end zone.
North Carolina mounted a comeback in the final stages of the fourth quarter, scoring two quick touchdowns and recovering two onside kicks. But, Robinson picked off a deep pass to cement South Carolina's win.
North Carolina limited South Carolina to just 69 rushing yards and 2.7 yards a carry, thanks in large part to five-star linebacker Derek Nicholson, who finished with a team-high seven tackles and was named the team's defensive MVP. Nicholson's father, Darrell, was named MVP of the entire game 29 years ago.
Massaquoi made a handful of impressive catches, including a one-handed grab just inches inside the field, but it was Hardesty who earned offensive MVP honors for North Carolina. He gained 136 yards on five kickoff returns and also picked up 55 rusin yards on 12 attempts.