A&M

Texas A&M tight end Jace Sternberger ran through South Carolina's secondary all day. AP/Sean Rayford

COLUMBIA — The irony of depending on the "hands team" for a potential win when South Carolina’s lack of hands led to defeat wasn’t lost.

With the Gamecocks' best ball-handlers on the field and less than a minute left in the game, an onside kick didn’t go the required 10 yards so South Carolina never had the chance to try and corral it. It was the final mistake in a 26-23 loss to No. 22 Texas A&M Saturday, where following a familiar script, USC deeply cut itself early, rallied late and didn’t have enough at the end.

“Too many self-inflicted issues. Finishing plays down the field,” coach Will Muschamp said after his team dropped to 3-3 overall, 2-3 in the SEC. “Those are the frustrating things to overcome for us right now.”

The Gamecocks' first scoring threat ended with an interception in the end zone, the defense allowed 16 unanswered points (the Gamecocks outscored the Aggies 23-10 the rest of the way) and dropped an interception that became a field goal. Then USC didn't call a timeout on a key third down when two defenders lined up over right tackle Blake Camper.

And the dropped passes. More dropped passes, again, from what was supposed to be one of the best receiving corps in the country.

Is that surprising?

“Very surprised,” Muschamp answered.

What went right

The Gamecocks came in with a goal of slowing down running back Trayveon Williams and mostly did, holding him to 78 yards on 19 carries. USC’s defense only allowed 3 of 13 third-down conversion attempts.

The third quarter showed exactly how lethal the USC offense can be, with Jake Bentley guiding two scoring drives, each capped with a two-point conversion. The receivers were so on point that Chavis Dawkins nabbed his first catch of the season, and first touchdown of his career, during the rally.

What went wrong

Bentley, returning after a sprained knee kept him out last week, was shaky early and squandered an early chance for points by throwing an interception in the end zone. The Gamecocks’ defense held up on the run but had nobody who could cover or bring down Aggies tight end Jace Sternberger, who at one point had more yards than USC’s entire offense and ended with 145 yards on seven catches.

USC's Rashad Fenton dropped an interception that would have prevented a Texas A&M field goal. The Gamecocks didn’t recognize the lopsided scheme that led to Landis Durham sacking Bentley on a key third down. The botched onside kick.

And with Bentley emerging from his funk, Deebo Samuel dropped a one-on-one pass downfield with nothing but grass in front of him (in fairness, one arm was held by the defender and no flag was thrown). Bryan Edwards had a step on his man running down the sideline and let Bentley’s pass fall through his mitts. Edwards also fumbled after a strong punt return.

Shi Smith, who had yet to drop a catchable pass in his career coming in, blew one off his chest and another in the fourth quarter, pushing off in the process and being penalized for it.

USC has lost eight straight to Top 25 teams and has yet to post a winning streak this season.

Turning point

Trailing 19-16 after Fenton’s pick was dropped and A&M kicked a field goal, the Gamecocks gave up the third-down sack but had A&M facing third-and-7 with plenty of time to go. They only rushed three instead of relying on pressure that had won most of its battles in the game, relying on the other eight to cover the Aggies’ receivers.

Sternberger caught a pass over the middle and rumbled 23 yards through two busted tackles. No matter who was assigned to cover him, they were too small and too slow.

The drive became a touchdown and 10-point lead with 96 seconds to play.

Looking ahead

The Gamecocks enter their bye week knowing they have no chance for a division title and their likelihood of a New Year’s Day bowl game — or any bowl game — lessening by the minute. They should get healthier (defensive end D.J. Wonnum is set to return Oct. 27) but will be playing a Tennessee team that stomped Auburn on Saturday.

The Volunteers will also be coming off their annual game against Alabama.

Follow David Cloninger on Twitter @DCPandC.