Small mistakes adding up to big problems for ‘careless’ Gamecocks

Head coach Steve Spurrier and South Carolina return to Athens on Saturday for the first time since a 41-30 loss to Georgia in 2013. AP Photo/John Bazemore/File

An interception thrown on first down. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that pushes the offense from the opponents’ 2-yard-line back to the 17. A missed block that turns a touchdown opportunity into a field-goal attempt.

These are the things that make Steve Spurrier shake his head.

“Our players have to play with a little bit more discipline than what we’ve been doing,” South Carolina’s head coach said Tuesday at his weekly media briefing. “We do those things, we believe we can turn this into a very successful season.”

That goal became more difficult Saturday, when the Gamecocks settled for field goals on three red-zone opportunities in the second half of a 26-22 home loss to Kentucky, which hadn’t won a road game since 2010. As poorly as USC’s defense played in the first half, as stagnant as its offense was before backup quarterback Perry Orth entered the game, South Carolina still had an opportunity to win — before a series of small mistakes combined to create a sizeable setback.

Now the Gamecocks (1-1, 0-1 SEC) face the unenviable task of rebounding at No. 7 Georgia, where they will try to avoid dropping two of their first three games for the first time since 2008.

“Saturday was a tough one, but I think we’re doing a good job of putting it in the past, trying to move forward,” said Orth, a former walk-on who will make his first career start Saturday due to injuries suffered by No. 1 quarterback Connor Mitch. “We understand Saturday is a very big game for us. Everyone is excited for the next opportunity to get out there and try to turn it around.”

Doing that will entail avoiding the mistakes that nearly cost the Gamecocks their opener, and were evident again against the Wildcats. Against North Carolina, USC committed eight penalties, among them a taunting flag on Mitch at the Tar Heels’ 29 that pushed the Gamecocks out of field goal range. The Gamecocks later failed to convert a fourth-quarter fourth-and-1 when tailback David Williams — dropped from second to third on the depth chart in favor of Shon Carson — ran outside instead of between the tackles.

An interception in the end zone allowed the Gamecocks to escape that game with a 17-13 victory. Against Kentucky, they weren’t so fortunate. Center Alan Knott’s shove of a Wildcats’ player after Carson rushed to the Kentucky 2 drew an unsportsmanlike conduct flag, and forced USC to settle for a field goal. And even Tuesday, Spurrier’s annoyance at missed blocks near the goal line and Orth’s first-down interception in Kentucky territory remained obvious.

“We had a lot of chances,” he said, “but we had some major breakdowns at crucial times.”

For a team like South Carolina, which played 12 current or former walk-ons against Kentucky and remains a work in progress on both sides of the ball, those breakdowns can be costly in close games. And most of USC’s recent games against Georgia (2-0, 1-0) have been just that, with six of the last eight in the series being decided by a touchdown or less.

The Gamecocks have won four of their last five against the Bulldogs, the program’s best stretch ever against their SEC East rivals. South Carolina won 38-35 last season in Columbia, Spurrier’s 16th career victory over Georgia.

“I think we’ve just been fortunate to get some breaks here and there, and win some close games, lose some close games with them, too,” Spurrier said. “But we’ve played them really well here at home, it seems like most all the time. We’ve won a couple over there since I’ve been here. Who knows why sometimes you win a lot of close games against one team, and not another team. Sometimes that just happens.”

It happened last season because USC made the small plays when it mattered, like quarterback Dylan Thompson’s pickup of a game-clinching fourth-and-1. For the 17-point underdogs to have any chance of pulling the upset in Athens, they’ll need to do the same Saturday night.

“We’ve got to go play a little bit better than we’ve been playing,” Spurrier said. “We’ve got to play without some really careless mistakes that hurt us last week.”