COLUMBIA — Bryan Edwards lay prone in the end zone, his head under the hedges and his hands empty. He said he thought he caught Ryan Hilinski’s last pass of the game, a toss to the wide-open receiver that would have meant the game-winning touchdown.

It didn’t matter if he caught it or didn’t. South Carolina was flagged for holding on the play and the touchdown wouldn’t have counted.

What did count Saturday night was a 20-15 loss to Appalachian State, a defeat that left the Gamecocks little choice but to win their next two games in order to reach a bowl game. And while Las Vegas may have called it an upset (USC was a 6½ point favorite at kickoff), it wasn’t.

Appalachian State (8-1) was the better team. The Gamecocks (4-6) couldn’t run the ball and could hardly pass due to their receiver corps being riddled with injuries.

“We needed to play better than we did and we needed to coach better than we did,” coach Will Muschamp said, repeating a familiar refrain. “Our guys will fight, they’ve got a lot of resolve.”

The loss increased the possibility of USC losing out and finishing 4-8 with what was supposed to be Muschamp’s best team, which could turn up the heat under the embattled coach. Athletics director Ray Tanner had no comment on the progress of the football program afterward.

USC paid Appalachian State $900,000 for the game.

What went right

The one touchdown USC scored was a fluke, when Edwards spun out of a tackle and raced 23 yards to the end zone late in the fourth quarter. That made the score 20-15 and after a strong defensive stand, the Gamecocks got the ball back with 55 yards to go and 1:50 to play.

Hilinski found Rico Dowdle for two fourth-down conversions to keep the drive alive and USC was at the 9-yard-line with nine seconds to go. But USC was penalized once for holding to take three seconds off the clock, then Hilinski threw incomplete to Edwards.

There was a bit of credit in continuing to play to the last second.

“We’re trying to get to a bowl game, so there’s a lot left on the table,” Edwards said. “I’m coming in to compete every week. I expect everyone else to do the same.”

Edwards passed Alshon Jeffery for first on the school’s career receiving yardage chart and is also alone at the top in receptions and consecutive games with a catch. His touchdown moved him within one of tying Jeffery and Sidney Rice for the TD record.

The defense held Appalachian State to 202 yards and one touchdown (set up by a special teams gaffe).

“We have to keep continuing to do our job. We can’t go into a game expecting them to do something and put up a bunch of points,” linebacker Ernest Jones said. “We shouldn’t let them score a touchdown.”

What went wrong

When Edwards went down in the first half (he returned), USC was left with a group of receivers that had caught 16 total passes in their careers. Hilinski, with a very fast delivery, either couldn’t get it to his new receivers or the passes were dropped.

“When it hits your hands, we expect you to catch it,” Muschamp said. “We had several times where it hit guys in the hands and we need to catch the football.”

USC’s offensive line was submarined by a team from the Sun Belt Conference, even if it was in the Top 25 before last week’s game. That shorted out any potential impact from running back Rico Dowdle. The Gamecocks finished with 21 yards on 27 carries.

"Really just got us off our game," center Donell Stanley said. "We didn’t execute the adjustment well. Just not good on us."

The defense managed to limit big plays but couldn’t stay on the field forever with no support. Special teams gave up two long kick returns, which led to 10 Mountaineer points.

The Gamecocks had eight penalties a week after having 11.

USC had two first-quarter possessions inside the 25-yard line and scored six points. “We don’t have a second pitch,” Muschamp said. “We got to be able to run the ball.”

Hilinski’s first intercepted pass in six games clanged off freshman Xavier Legette’s hands and into the arms of  Nicholas Ross. He trotted into the end zone for a 13-6 halftime lead.

Turning point

Ross’ pick-six in the second was the back-breaker. USC only trailed seven points but the offense, missing most of its playmakers, couldn’t get even.

Looking ahead

The Gamecocks are at Texas A&M at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 16, still looking for their first win in the series.

Follow David Cloninger on Twitter @DCPandC.

From Rock Hill, S.C., David Cloninger covers Gamecock sports. He will not rest until he owns every great film and song ever recorded.

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