USC's Hayden Hurst against Florida

South Carolina's Hayden Hurst drops a pass as he's hit by a Florida defender during the Gamecocks' loss Saturday in Gainesville, Fla. (Travis Bell/SIDELINE CAROLINA)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The trees were palms instead of palmettos, the campus featured a bell tower rather than a Horseshoe, the fans wore orange and blue rather than garnet and black. And a South Carolina football team that had played so freely and confidently over the past three weekends suddenly looked wide-eyed and tight.

This wasn’t Williams-Brice Stadium, a fact evident when an announced crowd of 89,614 rose up and the Swamp became as menacing as it can be. In the crosshairs was a young Gamecocks team that was knocked unsteady by the environment, and had its three-game winning streak ended Saturday in a 20-7 loss to faster, deeper and savvier Florida squad in a game emphasizing just how far USC still has to go.

“We didn’t handle the moment, I thought early in the game, for a football team,” said Gamecocks head coach Will Muschamp, returning to a place where he held the same position for four years. “That was very evident.”

South Carolina (5-5, 3-5 SEC) had its remote chances of winning the SEC East ended, and must wait until next week against Western Carolina to try and secure bowl eligibility. Freshman quarterback Jake Bentley was sacked five times, freshman tailback Rico Dowdle was held to 18 yards, and USC was on the verge of going scoreless for the first time in over a decade until a David Williams touchdown with 6:53 left.

USC's Jake Bentley scrambles against Florida

South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley scrambles for yardage in Saturday's loss to Florida. (Travis Bell/SIDELINE CAROLINA)

“We had a couple of young guys, I’m pretty sure Jake Bentley, he wasn’t nervous, but this is his first SEC away game. On a stage like this, he was probably a little jittery at first,” said USC defensive tackle Taylor Stallworth. “But in the second half, he turned it around.”

By then, it was too late. Austin Appleby, starting at quarterback because of a shoulder injury to Luke Del Rio, completed 17 of 21 attempts for 201 yards and a pair of touchdowns to help the Gators (7-2, 5-2) keep SEC East title hopes alive. Jordan Scarlett rushed for 134, and Eddy Pineiro hit two field goals as Florida overcame the absence of five injured starters, and four more lost during the game.

“We’re so deep, and we have so much talent out there,” said Appleby, a graduate transfer from Purdue, “it doesn’t matter who’s out there if we play to our standard.”

For the Gamecocks, facing their first road challenge since freshmen Bentley and Dowdle emerged as starters, it was a wake-up call. Florida’s third snap produced the kind of big play USC’s defense had prevented for much of this season, a 33-yard run zone-read run by Appleby that set up a short touchdown pass to C’yontai Lewis. It was a sign of things to come.

“It kind of set the tone for the game,” Appleby said.

The Gators hit USC for nine plays of 13 yards or longer, including an 18-yard Appleby touchdown strike to Ahmad Fulwood that came after gains of 32 and 24 yards. The Gamecocks entered as the SEC leaders in interceptions and turnover margin, and forced three takeaways in the game, but struggled to slow a Florida offense that gained more yards in the first half than in all of its loss to Arkansas last week.

“I feel like we came out a little flat,” said USC linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams, who forced a fumble, recovered a fumble, and tipped a pass that was picked off. “We didn’t start as fast as we needed to, being on the road. They’re a good team, and playing a good team like that, you can’t start slow. We just started slow.”

On both sides of the ball. “We staggered in the first half,” Williams said. “We tried to turn it on way too late. They gave us two opportunities with the two fumbles, and we didn’t take advantage of it. With a team like (Florida), you’ve got to take advantage of it.”

USC amassed 151 of its 256 total yards on its final two drives, the first producing Williams’ touchdown after Bentley found Rod Talley — playing because Dowdle had left injured — for a 19-yard pickup on fourth down. The Gamecocks forced a punt and threatened again after Bentley found Hayden Hurst for 47 yards, but a fourth-down pass with 48 seconds left fell just beyond the tight end’s reach.

“I’ve got to lay out and make that play,” Hurst said. “That’s a play I have to make.”

USC had what Muschamp termed “critical” dropped passed by Hurst and Bryan Edwards that helped Florida’s defense set the tone. And the running game that had powered the Gamecocks the past three weeks was bottled up, with the Gators taking away the outside and limiting USC to 43 total yards.

“They prepared well,” Hurst said. “They knew what we were going to try to do. We were going to run the ball, and they shut that down pretty well.”

That put the onus on Bentley, who in his fourth start tossed his first career interception, also committed a fumble, and was often left scrambling because of protection breaking down. The freshman completed 18 of 33 attempts for 213 yards and was sacked five times Saturday, increasing his total to 15 in the last three games.

“They’ve got really good cover people,” Muschamp said. “... Part of it is, we can protect a little better. Part of it is, they’ve got really good players. Part of it is, Jake needs to get rid of the ball. It’s an all-encompassing deal. It’s not one thing.”

There were no surprises, left tackle Mason Zandi added. “They did exactly what they showed on tape. We’ve just got to get better up front.”

The atmosphere seemed to play a part. “It was a little tough. It was loud,” said Hurst, a sophomore. And it clearly took the Gamecocks some time to adjust before they tried to make a game of it in the second half.

“You saw some wide eyes, but as a freshman or as a sophomore, being in this environment for the first time, it’s kind of intimidating,” Allen-Williams said. “When we came in at halftime, we tried to talk to some of the younger guys and let them know, ‘It’s another game. They put their pants on the same way we do, and we’ve just got to play them.’ I think we came out in the second half and did a better job.”

Muschamp wants to see his young team do that from the start, especially given USC’s next road game will be in an even more hostile environment: Clemson, in two weeks.

“I do feel like we’re a different team at home, and that’s not a good thing,” Muschamp said. “We’ve got to learn to go on the road and play well. I told the guys in the locker room, learn from it and move forward.”

Reach David Caraviello at dcaraviello@postandcourier.com, and follow him on Twitter at @dcaraviello.

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