Zeb Noland’s eyes shifted from right to left, then back to the right.
Noland dropped five steps. He tip-toed forward. He fired a strike. The ball zipped past the raised hand of Vanderbilt defensive lineman Terion Sugick. It whizzed by linebacker Ethan Barr. It nestled into the outstretched hands of South Carolina receiver Xavier Legette.
The converted coach had one more bullet in the gun.
Saturday, that shot killed Vanderbilt’s chances at its first Southeastern Conference win in 16 tries as South Carolina (4-3, 1-3 SEC) escaped the Commodores (2-5, 0-3 SEC) 21-20 on Noland’s last-second touchdown toss.
“It’s those moments you dream of as a kid,” he said. “You always think about it. I’m in my whatever year of playing, and you still dream about those moments. Even at practice every day, you think about making those throws and doing your job, and that’s what it came down to.”
By now you know the story. Most everyone in college football does.
Noland landed on head coach Shane Beamer’s staff over the summer as a graduate assistant. But in the days surrounding Luke Doty’s foot injury during fall camp, the former Iowa State and North Dakota State quarterback with a year of eligibility remaining was brought onto the roster to bolster depth.
Noland took his chance and ran — or rather threw — his way to the starting job. He earned the nod over Jason Brown and Colten Gauthier and led the team to wins over Eastern Illinois and East Carolina. He started against then-No. 2 Georgia before his throwing hand was stepped on and he was usurped by Doty in the weeks to come.
Saturday, though, an ineffective Doty — who Beamer said was hampered by the foot injury that held him out for around a month — was replaced by Noland with 59 seconds remaining.
Beamer said postgame that he toyed with the idea of inserting Noland a possession before. South Carolina decided against it. Doty promptly delivered what felt like his second back-breaking interception of the night.
“Luke’s foot was bothering him a little bit and we just needed a spark to finish some drives,” Beamer conceded.
With under two minutes, South Carolina under the gun and a three quarters of the field to go, the Gamecocks turned to Noland.
He completed his first throw for a one-yard gain to ZaQuandre White. Next came a 29-yard toss to tight end Nick Muse streaking across the middle of the Vanderbilt secondary. A near miss in receiver Josh Vann’s direction followed. So too did a drop by White.
Then came the chunk plays. There was the 15-yarder to Vann. A 21-yard floater to Dakereon Joyner along the South Carolina sideline pushed the Gamecocks to the precipice of the Commodore goal line.
Noland tried to find Legette on his seventh throw of the night, only for the ball to hit the turf. With five steps, a flick of the wrist, an acrobatic snag and a Parker White extra point, Noland navigated South Carolina the first SEC win of the Beamer era.
“I was impressed with the final drive,” Vanderbilt head coach Clark Lea said following the loss. “I think what I’m gonna do is look at more of the things that we can do to be better rather than the plays that were made on offense but I respect the way they finished the game and certainly did a nice job coming in, Zeb did, at the end there, and doing what it took to win. Respect that.”
In the Williams-Brice Stadium press box, keyboards clicked furiously as Noland and the Gamecocks celebrated along the hedges of the south end zone. The audible sighs of sportswriters on deadline reworking their stories permeated throughout the gray-walled and reddish dotted carpet of press row.
Beamer later said he showed his team a video in recent days about the New England Patriots’ 25-point Super Bowl comeback win over the Atlanta Falcons in 2017 and how those perched behind laptops that night had to tear up their work as Tom Brady mounted a comeback for the ages.
Saturday, there was no monumental comeback with those kinds of ramifications. After all, the contest included two teams slotted for the bottom of the SEC and with a combined six wins between them. But there was still something magical, majestic or just downright wacky about the final result and the man behind it.
Slowly sinking into the chair posed for his postgame press conference, Noland smirked when asked about the caterpillar, errr, mustache that rested upon his upper lip. He noted the new facial hair was an ode to an old picture day tradition between he and San Francisco 49ers quarterback Trey Lance back in Fargo, North Dakota.
“The season hasn’t been exactly what we wanted,” Noland said through a wry smile. “So I figured I’d bring it back.”
South Carolina’s season has ebbed and flowed with as much consistency as a rubber duck floating through a hurricane. Saturday, the Gamecocks were quickly up 14-3 and then looked to be sunk for much of the game’s final 45 minutes.
Thanks to eight plays, 59 seconds and a nine-yard touchdown pass, USC escaped near-disaster courtesy of its mustachioed man-under center.
Zeb Noland, USC game winning drive
South Carolina drive starts at own 25 [1:36]
1st and 10 on USC25: Zeb Noland pass complete to Zaquandre White for 1 yard to the USC26
2nd and 9 on USC26: Zeb Noland complete to Nick Muse for 29 yards to the VAN45
1st and 10 on VAN45: Zeb Noland pass incomplete to Josh Vann
2nd and 10 on VAN45: Zeb Noland pass incomplete to Zaquandre White
3rd and 10 on VAN45: Zeb Noland pass complete to Josh Vann for 15 yards to the VAN30
1st and 10 on VAN30: Zeb Noland pass complete to Dakereon Joyner for 21 yards to the VAN09
1st and 9 on VAN9: Zeb Noland pass incomplete to Xavier Legette.
2nd and 9 on VAN9: Zeb Noland pass complete to Xavier Legette for 9 yards, touchdown. [00:37}
1st and 10 on VAN3: Parker White kick attempt good.