ORLANDO, FLA. -- Those faces still stick with Ace Sanders. The defeated and depressed expressions of his senior teammates after last season's Chick-fil-A Bowl loss to Florida State are what Sanders, a sophomore wide receiver, remembers most vividly as he and his South Carolina teammates try to improve the Gamecocks' bowl game fortunes Monday.
"Just to look at all the seniors' faces and know that the last memory is just walking off with a loss," Sanders said. "Nobody wants to be sent home with that feeling."
Entering Monday's Capital One Bowl against Nebraska, the Gamecocks are 1-4 in bowl games under seventh-year coach Steve Spurrier, who has made admirable progress with the program, leading it to nine wins last season and 10 so far this season. But USC lost its bowl game the past three years, dropping it to 4-12 all time in bowls.
The first two weren't close -- 31-10 to Iowa after trailing 31-0 entering the fourth quarter, and 20-7 to Connecticut after falling behind 20-0 two minutes into the fourth. Those USC teams weren't as good as last year's, or this year's. That's why falling one win shy of 10 last season still hurts the Gamecocks. They lost 26-17 to Florida State, but trailed just 19-17 until 5:27 remained.
"We just let it go," Sanders said. "That sticks with us bad."
With a school-record 11th win at stake Monday, "the preparation is at a much higher level than last year," Sanders said. The Gamecocks are running more, he said, so they don't wilt late. (But it didn't help in the Chick-fil-A Bowl that leading rusher Marcus Lattimore was injured on the first drive and didn't return.)
"Last year, it's kind of like we let that opportunity go to waste," Sanders said. "It's kind of like we died in the second half."
Preparation is only partly physical, of course, and with the wildest party night of the year coming up this evening, there is always temptation to partake in youthful indiscretion that kids not playing in a bowl are free to enjoy. One night while the Gamecocks were in Atlanta for the Chick-fil-A Bowl, quarterback Stephen Garcia was caught with alcohol and females in his hotel room. (Garcia was kicked off the team six games into this season.)
"I think we're focused enough because we know we can make history," said senior defensive tackle Travian Robertson.
Sophomore quarterback Connor Shaw, who replaced Garcia, said the Gamecocks are doing a better job this year of "making better decisions." Though Shaw was around for just one game in the three-bowl losing streak, he senses his teammates' frustration about sour endings to seasons.
"I think the team is fed up with it, and I think we've learned from our mistakes from the past," he said. "We've handled ourselves a lot better this time around. Coach is preparing us a lot better this time around."
Spurrier would be glad to hear Shaw's "fed up" comment. The coach didn't hesitate when asked if he hopes his players still remember the sting of their recent bowl losses.
"Let's hope so," he said. "But we can't do anything about that one last year or the year before or the year before that."