COLUMBIA — After warming up in the same game-day helmets they’ve used all season, South Carolina’s players returned to their locker room to find a surprise.
“I talked to one of the equipment managers, and he said something happened to the helmets when they were left outside, and we’d have to use our practice helmets,” said Gamecocks quarterback Perry Orth. “And we came in, and saw the new helmets. It was pretty cool.”
They weren’t practice helmets, but new alternate helmets featuring gamecock tail feathers in garnet on a white background. To the surprise of the crowd at Williams-Brice Stadium, USC ran out to “2001” in the new headgear, marking the first time since 1974 they’ve used a helmet logo other than the traditional full gamecock inside a block C.
The helmets were the idea of interim head coach Shawn Elliott, who viewed them as yet another motivational tactic. They proved of little help to a USC team which suffered through its worst offensive outing of the season in a 24-14 loss to No. 11 Florida.
“When you’re in a situation like we’re in — and I think we’re struggling a bit, we haven’t won the last few games — you’ve got to change things up. ... It just came to me. I thought it might be a good idea to get the guys excited, (bring) a little more energy,” Elliott said.
“I thought we’d bring out the new decal, and the response was positive from our team. I’m not really sure about outsiders and about fans, but I thought the look was OK. The look was nice. I told them right before we went out, I said, ‘These helmets don’t make the team. It’s what you put inside the helmets that make the football team.’ I just thought I’d change it up a little bit.”
Third down proved the undoing of a South Carolina defense which was competitive enough to keep the Gamecocks in the game despite a season-low 201 yards of total offense. The Gators converted a season-high 11-of-19 third-down opportunities, three of them on their first scoring drive, and converted a fourth-and-1 on the same possession for good measure.
“We tried about everything,” said USC co-defensive coordinator Jon Hoke. “We pressured. We played zone. We played man. We had a tough time putting pressure on the quarterback ... We were inconsistent, and that makes it tough to get off the field when you’re not executing the way you need to.”
Florida converted three more third downs on its second touchdown drive, including the 41-yard scoring pass to Jordan Cronkrite, which came on third-and-11. And Kelvin Taylor’s 53-yard burst in the final minutes, which set up the clinching touchdown, came on third-and-8.
“It was always just a detail on every third down that was getting us, and it’s unfortunate,” Hoke said, “because they were doing a good job on first and second down.”
Orth and receiver Pharoh Cooper were ready for the trick play which resulted in USC’s first touchdown, having practiced it during the week. Orth tossed a lateral to Cooper, and the All-SEC receiver lofted a 38-yard touchdown strike back to the quarterback.
“I had to put the ball where only he got could get it,” said Cooper, who played quarterback as a high school senior, and completed his fourth career TD pass at USC.
Florida head coach Jim McElwain wasn’t surprised. “He’s their gadget guy,” he said of Cooper. “... He throws it, he runs it, I’m sure he can kick it, he catches it. He probably does their postgame meal, too.”
Orth said the Florida defense left him open, “and Pharoh threw a perfect pass.” The only negative was an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty the quarterback incurred after the score, for what officials interpreted as spinning the ball.
“They said I went to spin the ball, and I may have,” Orth said. “I just kind of dropped it. I can’t have any kind of gray area for them to flag me. I should just hand the ball to the ref.”
McElwain is now tied with four other former Gators head coaches for the most wins (nine) in their first season. One of them is Steve Spurrier, also former head coach of the Gamecocks, who did not attend Saturday’s game.
With D.J. Neal out with a back injury suffered last week at Tennessee, former pro baseball player and walk-on receiver Hayden Hurst received his first career start for USC. He finished with two catches for 12 yards.