South Carolina fumbles away big game at Florida
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — All along, this three-game October stretch was going to define South Carolina’s season and determine what the Gamecocks would play for come November — a Southeastern Conference championship or a better second-tier bowl game.
Three games in three weeks in three of college football’s most intense environments. Three games to measure just how far the Gamecocks had progressed under eighth-year coach Steve Spurrier, to see if a team ranked in the preseason top 10 for the first time could play at that level, and with those elite teams, when it mattered most.
Saturday afternoon, the ninth-ranked Gamecocks couldn’t. They fumbled their way through a 44-11 loss at third-ranked Florida. They got precious little from their offense, even less than in the previous week’s loss at LSU. Their special teams performance was nothing short of an unmitigated disaster.
Everything USC wanted from this season of great expectations is not gone now. Just most of it.
The Gamecocks (6-2, 4-2 SEC) need to win out in SEC play and have Florida (7-0, 6-0) lose out — among several other things — to win the SEC’s Eastern Division via tiebreakers. The harsh reality probably is USC will spend the regular season’s final four games, starting next week at home against Tennessee, and its bowl game, chasing last year’s 11-2 record — and nothing more.
There is no shame in that. But no win is guaranteed for a team that performs as poorly on a grand stage as the Gamecocks did Saturday. They trailed 21-6 at halftime and Spurrier replaced quarterback Connor Shaw with Dylan Thompson.
They gained just 191 yards in the game, ran 26 times for 36 yards and handed Florida back-to-back touchdown drives of 29 and 1 yard after fumbling away a punt and a kickoff. They did everything humanly possible to spoil their defense’s showing — 183 yards for Florida, including just 89 on 48 rushes.
“It’s a lot on a defense,” defensive end Jadeveon Clowney said of the short fields. “When you’ve just gone to the sideline and gotten a sip of water, and then have to run back on the field, you just tell each other, ‘Hey, three and out. We’ve got to get off the field.’ ”
Because of USC’s special teams blunders, Florida had almost as many points in the first half (21) as yards (29). Saddled with short fields — Florida also had touchdown drives of 2, 11 and 44 yards — USC’s defense truly cracked just once, when Florida drove 59 yards for a touchdown to start the second half. Florida led 27-8 after that and never looked back, letting its fans relax and sing their way through the final moments of a blowout of their former coach.
This was Spurrier’s fourth trip back to The Swamp, as he famously nicknamed Ben Hill Griffin Stadium while making it buzz from 1990 to 2001, just like it did Saturday. Because of the scene, implications and margin of defeat — Spurrier’s fourth-largest as USC’s coach — this qualifies as one of the most jarring losses of his career. He sounded fittingly disgusted afterward.
“Florida kids, they don’t fumble,” he said. “That’s why we don’t deserve to be in the top 15. I don’t know what we deserve to be right now. We’re embarrassed right now because we had some performances that didn’t give us a chance. You can’t do that. I don’t have all the answers right now.”
Shaw was equally stunned on the game’s first play, when cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy ran untouched on a blitz, and unseen by Shaw despite not coming from his blind side, until it was too late. Purifoy popped the ball away, Florida took over at USC’s 2-yard line and scored a touchdown in three plays to go up 7-0, just 59 seconds into the game.
“That’s just one play,” Spurrier said. “One play doesn’t determine the entire game, OK?”
Spurrier was more irked by Ace Sanders’ punt return fumble and Damiere Byrd’s on a kickoff return — just the third time in his career he was returning a kickoff. He replaced Bruce Ellington after he fumbled the kickoff following Florida’s first touchdown.
“Inexcusable,” Spurrier said of Sanders’ and Byrd’s gaffes.
Two weeks ago Saturday night, fans drove around Columbia honking their horns to celebrate a home win over Georgia — USC’s first, in five tries, in a game between top 10 teams. They could feel the SEC East in their grasp, there for the taking. But the realistic among them understood that winning the next two games — both top 10 vs. top 10 matchups on the road — would be one of the most difficult things their program had ever accomplished.
Much of the hope from two weeks ago is gone now, replaced by pulling for other teams and, failing desired outcomes, the readjusted goals of a season that, at least on Saturday night, felt somewhat deflated.
“It’s out of our hands now,” Sanders said. “It was in our hands tonight and we dropped the ball.”