COLUMBIA — There weren’t that many wasted scoring opportunities, no crucial injury and no silly penalties.
Yet South Carolina still didn’t look ready for its latest attempt to win a big game.
There is the notable factor of playing some really good teams. In the Gamecocks’ last two chances while playing a big home game, they were hosting Clemson and Georgia, each a College Football Playoff participant last year. USC has come a long way in Will Muschamp’s just-over two seasons, but it’s not at that level.
Losses may be expected, but the Gamecocks are taking themselves out of the game before they even get into it. The brutal Kentucky game last season near started it, USC squandering an electric home environment by not punching in two first-quarter turnovers in its half of the field and then losing Deebo Samuel to a broken leg.
Last year’s Clemson game continued it, when a first-quarter interception returned for a touchdown broke USC’s spirit.
Saturday, they did fight back from a 14-0 deficit to be down 17-10, before Joseph Charlton’s shanked punt caused another gut-punch. Yes, Georgia scored its first points on a pick-six as Clemson did, but that wasn’t Jake Bentley’s fault.
The ball hit Rico Dowdle in the hands, and the helmet, popped up and was caught by Deandre Baker for a catch-and-score.
“Just a lack of focus,” Dowdle said. “Play that's got to be made. That’s on me.”
Bad luck, not being overcome by the emotion of the moment.
But the other mistakes followed.
So many dropped passes. A shanked kick from an always-reliable punter that led to three Georgia points. Throw those into what was expected to happen — Georgia’s massive linemen dwarfed USC’s, shutting down the running game — and USC’s offense bogged.
It wasn’t hype or too geeked up. It was just football, and some tough breaks. “We were fine,” Muschamp said. “Catch the football, don’t have it bounce off your helmet.”
Sure. But it was another chance to really take a step, to go from good to great, and the Gamecocks were again left playing to a three-quarter-empty stadium.
“We took the same approach we took each game. Things didn’t go our way,” USC receiver Bryan Edwards said. “I don’t think it had anything to do with being focused or being hyped.”
There's a lot of football left to play. A lot of games that could become bigger before the biggest one at the end.
Take a deep breath.