COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Zeb Noland's played more than enough football to be ready when called on and cherish the moments of success. The former graduate assistant did both to rally South Carolina to its first Southeastern Conference win in more than year.
Noland entered on the Gamecocks' final drive and led a 75-yard touchdown drive, connecting with Xavier Legette on a 9-yard scoring pass with 37 seconds left for a 21-20 win over Vanderbilt on Saturday night.
“It's surreal,” the 24-year-old Noland said. “I told you guys, I thought I'd never put on the pads again. I wasn't sure I'd ever get this opportunity again.”
But there was Noland, calm and confident, leading South Carolina (4-3, 1-3 SEC) to snap its nine-game losing streak against conference opponents.
“Shout out to Zeb. He's a GOAT,” tight end Jaheim Bell said. “He stepped up big time.”
Gamecocks coach Shane Beamer said Noland came in when Luke Doty was feeling some soreness in a foot injury he sustained this summer at practice. Noland started the first three games before Doty took over in the middle of a 40-13 loss to Georgia last month. Noland hadn't played since then.
Noland's message in the huddle was simple: “Keep me clean. I got you. That's what I said, and let's roll.”
Noland got the Gamecocks rolling with a 29-yard pass to tight end Nick Muse to get into Vanderbilt territory.
He had completions of 15 yards to Josh Vann and 21 yards to Dakereon Joyner to the Commodores' 9. On Noland's winning throw, Legette ran to the back of the end zone and got open for the winning score.
Parker White made the extra point to send Vanderbilt, which held a 20-14 lead with less than two minutes left, to its 16th straight loss against SEC opponents.
Commodores first-year coach Clark Lea said his team was disappointed and hurting about the loss. “But there will be points we'll build on for sure,” he said.
Noland is not worried about when he'll play again, just about making sure he does what he can to be a good team and prepare Doty or anyone in the qu arterback room for the next game.
Noland began his college career at Iowa State, moving on to North Dakota State where he was a teammate of San Francisco 49ers passer Trey Lance before accepting Beamer's offer to join the staff here.
Noland was convinced to put the pads back on when Doty hurt his foot this past August.
It looked like the Commodores would be the ones celebrating after Joseph Bulovas hit a 28-yard field goal with 1:36 to go for a 20-14 lead. Vanderbilt's defense had held South Carolina scoreless for nearly 49 minutes.
But Noland gave South Carolina the winning spark and Beamer his first SEC victory since taking over the program last December.
Vanderbilt quarterback Mike Wright threw for 206 yards including a 52-yard touchdown pass to Will Sheppard for a 17-14 lead in the third quarter that held up until the final seconds.
Vanderbilt broke its season-long scoring drought against the SEC with Bulovas' 42-yard field goal in the opening quarter. The Commodores added their first TD in league play when Rocko Griffin Jr. ran in from a yard out to take advantage of a South Carolina fumble and cut the lead to 14-10.
Bell finished with six catches for 136 yards for South Carolina.
Vanderbilt: The Commodores looked close to getting the SEC monkey off their backs. They had held strong throughout, but couldn't prevent Noland from driving South Carolina to the winning score. They'll next try to end the streak against Mississippi State.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks offense and coordinator Marcus Satterfield have come under heavy fire the past few games. They trailed at Tennessee 35-0 in the opening half and were booed at Williams-Brice Stadium as the offensive mistakes and penalties piled up. This result will only have fans calling on a quarterback change going forward.
While Vanderbilt was without injured starting quarterback Ken Seals, South Carolina was also minus several key players in starting right tackle Dylan Wonnum and receiver Jalen Brooks. Gamecocks' reserve tailback JuJu McDowell was also listed as “unavailable.”
Noland has been honored on Twitter as Col. Zebuliah Noland, where he's seen in a Civil War outfield in a sepia colored photo and writes dispatches home to his mother from the front lines of South Carolina games. Noland said he enjoys the account and is hoping to have T-shirts made up. “It's good,” he said.
Vanderbilt starts a three-game homestand against Mississippi State next Saturday.
South Carolina travels to Texas A&M next Saturday night.
More AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25. Sign up for the AP’s college football newsletter: https://apnews.com/cfbtop25