CHARLOTTE — It’s always about progress. With the situation he stepped into combined with South Carolina’s bare football pedigree, Will Muschamp didn’t have to win championships as long as each year was a little better than the year before.
He did that his first two years. The third?
“All Gas No Brakes” dropped the first three words.
The season ended with a monstrous splat Saturday when USC was manhandled by Virginia in a 28-0 loss at the Belk Bowl. USC (7-6) had a chance to write a successful story, that of winning eight games despite an injury-riddled season.
There’s only a one game difference between 8-5 and 7-6, but when USC settled for the latter and played one of its worst games of the year while doing it, the shiny new operations building and some big-time recruits that signed 11 days ago didn’t have nearly as much gloss.
“It’s my responsibility. Defensively, we hung in there,” Muschamp said. “We didn’t put on a good show and that’s on me. I apologize to (our fans).”
With 10 defenders not playing due to injury, USC knew it would struggle to contain Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins and his playmakers. The Cavaliers (8-5) put up 413 yards.
But the lethal offense that the Gamecocks had propped its battered defense with the second half of the season was not there. Jake Bentley was harassed all day by an intense Virginia pass-rush, the running game went nowhere and then came the turnovers.
Bentley tossed two interceptions after the Gamecocks twice failed to pick up less than a yard to keep a drive going. USC was shut out in a bowl game for the first time.
“They came out and outplayed us, they out-executed us, they had a better mindset than us. That’s why they won the game like this,” lineman Donell Stanley said. “Our mindset being bad, it kind of killed the morale of our offense a little bit.”
What went right
• The defense played as well as could be expected, considering it was down to basically a third-string line and had three freshmen starting in the secondary. Keir Thomas, Jaycee Horn, Steven Montac and Rashad Fenton were also hurt during the game so that further whittled the talent level.
“We’ve recruited the right guys. And they’re talented guys, and they’re going to fight their (butts) off, and that’s what’s really bright about the future,” Muschamp said. “Ain’t none of them going to lay down, I’m gonna tell you that.”
• Fans showed up despite a non-New Year’s bowl game and not wanting to stay in Charlotte for a week. There were 48,263 claimed tickets and there was more garnet than orange.
What went wrong
• Bentley overthrew a wide-open Rico Dowdle on fourth-and-1, and Ty’Son Williams was stopped when he tried to dive over the pile on third-and-1. Neither play claimed a first down and it set the afternoon’s tone.
The Cavaliers had their arms up on every Bentley pass, were running unchecked around USC’s perimeter and generally made offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon look out-coached. The Gamecocks put up 600 yards on a Clemson defense that will play for the national championship. They had 261 against Virginia.
“They did a really good job of disguising their coverages, and we didn’t play well at all. I think that’s the biggest thing,” said Bentley, who was 17-of-40 for 218 yards. “Everybody was locked in and just didn’t play well when it mattered.”
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• The Gamecocks picked a bad time to revert to the slick hands that cost them the Texas A&M game. Receivers were once again dropping all sorts of catchable balls.
• Muschamp deservedly got a contract extension last year when the Gamecocks won nine games, capping it with a fiery comeback to beat Michigan in the Outback Bowl. Hope for this year was high.
USC had a winning season, but its most notable win was over 8-4 Missouri. All of it can’t be blamed on injuries, either.
Outside of the NFL questions on Bentley, Stanley and Bryan Edwards (all said they would think it over for a few days before deciding), now there are questions about where the program is truly headed. Muschamp’s third team was embarrassed by an ACC team not named Clemson, and it appeared the Cavaliers (8-5) wanted it more.
“I felt like we were ready to go,” Muschamp said. “I never felt (we weren’t mentally prepared) at all.”
Bentley zipped a pass to Shi Smith for 12 yards to set up third-and-3 on USC’s first drive of the third quarter. He was sacked on the next play, leading to a punt.
The Cavaliers scored to make it 21-0 and the game was over.