Offense inept in loss to perennial conference doormat

COLUMBIA — Losing to Vanderbilt isn't what it used to be. But it still left South Carolina with a red face Saturday.

After walking an offensive tightrope for weeks, the Commodores came into Williams-Brice Stadium and simply knocked the sixth-ranked Gamecocks off the high wire in a 17-6 upset in front of 79,212 bewildered fans.

They witnessed quite a tumble.

"It's embarrassing to come out and lose to these guys," South Carolina receiver Kenny McKinley said. "It's crushing. It crushes you."

It was the first time in Steve Spurrier's three years that South Carolina, favored by 13, had failed to win as a double-digit-point favorite.

Even so, Spurrier said the outcome should come as no surprise.

The Gamecocks had been teetering. And Vanderbilt, as evidenced Saturday, was good enough to beat USC or any other SEC team.

"This should not be a shock to our team," said Spurrier, previously 14-0 against Vandy. "We've been scraping by. We never said we were a great team. We've got to play smart if we're going to win."

A shot at a national title — as far-flung as those hopes might've been — are gone. South Carolina became the 15th top-10 team to lose this season.

"They spoiled our season," McKinley said. "We were up there, No. 6 and ready to get into that top five. They spoiled it."

But the SEC aspirations, somehow, are in tact.

Tennessee was blown out by Alabama, the paired losses cheapening the wholesale value of next week's game against USC in Knoxville. But it's still big in terms of the East.

Florida raced by Kentucky to hand the Wildcats their second SEC loss.

And, so, a Gamecocks (6-2, 3-2) team that lost to Vanderbilt still holds a share of the division lead with Florida and Georgia. Tennessee and Kentucky are a half-game back at 2-2.

"This was a crucial one for us," Spurrier said.

"But, then again, we've got a lot of goals that are still out there. But we've got to play a lot smarter. Somehow."

Many thought a team from the Volunteer State could very well take out South Carolina this month. Just not this one.

Vanderbilt (4-3, 2-3 SEC) scored 17 first-quarter points, didn't score another and didn't need another.

South Carolina's bumbling offense made certain of that.

You need a lot of fingers to point at the varying woes. Save a hand's worth, at least, for the offensive line.

With or without a blitz, Vanderbilt set up residence in South Carolina's offensive backfield. The Commodores finished with seven sacks that resulted in minus-50 yards for the offense.

In split duty with equal results, Chris Smelley went down four times to Blake Mitchell's three.

Additionally, the line accounted for five false start penalties.

"I don't know how that happens in the eighth week," Spurrier said.

A Smelley interception set up Vandy's first points on a field goal.

On USC's next offensive play, typically sure-handed Cory Boyd fumbled the ball back to Vandy, which scored again.

In the first quarter, Vandy's average field position was the USC 39-yard line. Twice, after the turnovers, the Commodores started at the 24. In the quarter, the Gamecocks started on average at their own 15.

"It was just one of those days," Spurrier said.

And that feeling seemed to drag on. And on and on.

USC has scored all of six points — no touchdowns — in its past six quarters.

"It's pretty pitiful," McKinley said. "I don't know what it is, but coach Spurrier, he'll correct it."

For every positive play South Carolina made, it destroyed itself with mistakes.

--The up: Captain Munnerlyn's 46-yard punt return just before the half got the Gamecocks to the 17-yard line.

--The down: The offense stalled and had to settle for a field goal to make it 17-6.

--The up: Down 11, it was USC's ball coming out of the half.

--The down: The Gamecocks botched the first snap, lost 5 yards on the fumble, and wound up going three-and-out.

--The up: In a last gasp, Munnerlyn forced a fumble and Eric Norwood pounced on it at the USC 29 with eight minutes to go.

--The down: After a Mike Davis 4-yard run, Blake Mitchell became Vandy's sixth and seventh sack victim. Punt. Ball game.

"We had sacks, penalties and not very good play by a lot of people and a lot of not very good coaching by a lot of people," Spurrier said. "We got our tails beat."

By Vanderbilt.

"They were obviously a lot better than us today," Spurrier said.

"We knew all along that we were sort of living on the edge of being 6-1."

Reach Travis Haney at thaney@postandcourier.com.