Equipped with a powerful right arm, flowing mullet and 10 pounds of swagger in a 5-pound bag, Steve Taneyhill’s unforgettable career was off to a flying start.
South Carolina opened the 1992 season with five losses before coach Sparky Woods handed the reins over to the gregarious freshman quarterback from Altoona, Pa.
“We were always very confident, but then with Taneyhill, really confident, because we had a guy in there who had so much excitement.” running back Brandon Bennett said almost 25 years later. “He’s the quarterback. He’s your leader. And he’s in the huddle just getting as rowdy and crazy as the linebacker there on the other side of the field.”
Woods’ decision proved to be the right one. South Carolina beat nationally ranked Mississippi State before knocking off Vanderbilt in Nashville with Taneyhill under center. In the process, he completed 18 of 31 passes for 401 yards with three touchdowns and an interception.
“He always kept us ready to go,” Bennett said. “He was like, ‘We’re going to give it to these boys tonight, then we’re going to hang out later and party.’
“It was one of those things where, when he got in the game and started to be the quarterback things changed, because it was a totally different mentality. You had a guy that was a gunslinger and a guy who really hung out with the guys and was a competitor, a true competitor, right there with you all the time.”
Apparently, that’s exactly what the program needed.
Statistically – as if the wins weren’t proof enough – the offense was considerably better. Scoring was up from 9 points per game during the first five contests to 21 over the two-win stretch. Through the air, the Gamecocks increased their average from 98 yards to 127. The run game was also on the uptick, from 127 yards per game to 153.
It was a different story for the Gamecocks opponent on that Halloween afternoon in 1992. The No. 16 ranked Vols limped into Columbia reeling from back-to-back home losses to Arkansas and Alabama.
“We went into that game with a lot of momentum,” Taneyhill remembered.
Before 71,529 fans at Williams-Brice Stadium, the Gamecocks knocked off Tennessee 24-23 in what Woods called “the greatest victory I’ve ever been a part of.”
With 53 seconds left, Tennessee quarterback Heath Shuler hit Mose Phillips on a 39-yard touchdown pass that cut South Carolina’s lead to 24-23.
Legendary coach Johnny Majors elected to go for the win and keep the Vols’ 89-year win streak over the Gamecocks alive.
“We really just fought the whole game,” Taneyhill said. “We scored late and we held them on the 2-point play, they went for the win. It was kind of pandemonium. It was a great game, as far as a team win, because the defense kind of won it for us that day.”
The game, he added, was full of “great plays.”
“I think Brandon Bennett had a big day running the ball that day,” Taneyhill said. “There was the goal line, 2-point play and Hank Campbell sealing the game. The play before that, the running back broke something like 11 tackles and scored, so going for that 2-point play, they had all the momentum.
“For our guys to get the big stop, as soon as that happened, you know you win. Just the roar of the crowd and the emotion that play was unreal.”
Taneyhill finished the game 13 of 25 for 145 yards with two touchdown passes. Bennett rushed for 122 yards and a score on 22 carries.
Bennett, who was a sophomore, signed with South Carolina out of Riverside High School in Greer, S.C. For him, beating Tennessee meant a little more than improving the team’s record to 3-5.
“I always thought in the back of my mind, what if I had gone to Tennessee,” he said during the postgame media availability. “It makes me feel good today after beating them, that I decided to come here.”
The game featured a unique halftime show, which included filming of scenes from the movie ‘The Program.’
It was also a turning point in the history of major college football. The following week, Majors resigned from his position and the program was turned over to offensive coordinator Phil Fulmer.
With Fulmer in place as the interim head coach, Tennessee finished the season 9-3 (5-3 SEC). South Carolina finished 5-6 (3-4 SEC) and closed with a 24-13 win over rival Clemson.
“I was just having fun,” Taneyhill said. “I was so thankful to be playing. I chose South Carolina, to play early and to play in the SEC. You don’t ever expect something like that to take place, but to start three games and win all three. It was great for our team. It was so much fun. The guys were having fun.”
It certainly helped that he was right there in the middle of it.
“No matter what the score was, (Taneyhill) was always like, ‘Come on, B. Run through that defense, give me some time on this block and I’m going to make something happen. We’re going to win this game,’” Bennett said. “I always liked that.”
During his four-year career, Taneyhill threw for 8,782 yards and 62 touchdowns. Bennett finished as South Carolina’s second all-time leading rusher before going on to a 10-year career in the NFL.
Taneyhill, who won three state championships as the coach at Chesterfield (S.C.) High School, recently ventured into small business ownership. Bennett now works as the director of intramural sports at a private school near Greenville, S.C., where he also operates a speed training service.
Both share fond memories of that Halloween afternoon in 1992.
“The locker room, I remember the locker room and how chaotic it was,” Taneyhill said. “All the people that were in there, all the recruits that were in the locker room and the other people that get in, the coaches from up in the box getting down, it’s really why you play the game.
“You see it now. You see the coaches in the locker rooms having fun, we did that way back in 1992. It was just a fun team.”
Bennett added, “To play a Tennessee team, one of the top teams in the country … we wanted to make a statement. We felt like we had as good an opportunity as anybody to beat them. And they were coming to us. We were ready for that.”