Damiere Byrd (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)
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It's a shame that in a game littered with enough big plays to fill a season highlight reel that one of the biggest is almost forgotten because of what happened next.
No, I'm not talking about the missed call before the Jadeveon Clowney hit that made his fame inter-planetary. After all, it's an often-missed point of fact that despite the hit, the fumble and the resulting 31-yard touchdown pass to Ace Sanders, Clowney and the Gamecock defense subsequently surrendered an 11-play, 64-yard drive for a touchdown to give Michigan a 28-27 lead with just 3:29 left.
I'm talking about the play before the game-winning touchdown pass. The one that set it up. The one that without it, we're talking less about "the hit" and more about "the drive" after or, even more likely, "the miss," had Adam Yates been called upon to kick a game-winning field goal after going 0-for-2 for the day. The one not forgotten, incidentally, by the man who made it - Damiere Byrd.
With Dylan Thompson having come in cold for an injured Connor Shaw and facing a critical third-and-6 from the South Carolina 39 with just 26 seconds left, Thompson fires quickly to his right behind the line of scrimmage to Byrd, who already had caught a 56-yard touchdown pass to open the game. Byrd catches it at the 42 and speeds straight upfield, slamming into Michigan defenders and plowing his way forward for a gain of 7 yards and a first down at the 32 with 19 seconds remaining.
Of course, we all know what happens next, and both Thompson, Bruce Ellington and Sanders all have basked in the post-game glory since. Had Byrd not made that catch, however, it could easily have been a much different outcome in the game and outlook for the team in 2013.
And yet, for as important as his catch and run was, he remains something of a mystery, an unproven commodity, because even though he's the second-leading returning receiver, he caught only 14 balls in 2012 for 366 yards and three touchdowns.
One person who remembers the play well and believes he's ready to have a breakout season, of course, is Byrd.
"I'm definitely a lot more confident this season than last season," said Byrd, listed as a starter at receiver coming out of the spring ahead of Shaq Roland and Shamier Jeffery. "Knowing now that I am capable of making big plays is huge, because I made a lot of them last year.
"Coming into this season I want to continue to make those plays and be more consistent and be a larger part, take a larger role in the offense this season."
Besides his Outback Bowl performance, Byrd also jump-started the Gamecocks' 35-7 rout of Georgia. On the game's second play with 14:16 left in the first quarter, Connor Shaw hit Byrd deep for a 43-yard gain on a play in which Byrd flat-out punked the ball away from Georgia All-American safety Bacarri Rambo to set up USC's first score and the tone of the night.
"The Georgia catch stays with me," Byrd said. "I think about that one a lot because they were a great team. That catch and the two in the Outback Bowl are what I think about. Both were against Top-25 teams, and they give me a lot of confidence that I can continue to do that if I work hard."
"I can play with the best defenders in the country. That motivates me.
"When Ace leaving, the door is open for me to contribute more, and I feel like I have that opportunity
What also motivates him is competition. Despite the fact that much of the off-season hype has been centered around the players behind him on the depth chart - Jeffery and Roland - he says the unit is united in its attitude toward success.
"Our receivers who have been here, we have a lot of experience, and we take accountability with each other and pull for each other," Byrd said. "We all talk very day at practice and in the film room and coach each other up, whether it's me, Bruce or the other guys. We help each other. We want to prove people wrong that the receivers won't be a strength of the team this year."
No matter what happens, Byrd will always have the Outback Bowl catch front and center in his memory even if practically no one else does.
"It'll stick with me forever," he said. "I know what I did, and I'm proud of that one."
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