ORLANDO, Fla. — Road-trip adversity in Orlando usually means you lose your indoor skydiving coupons inside the walrus exhibit at Sea World. It was worse than that for No. 12 South Carolina on Saturday.
The Gamecocks fell behind by 10 points before a zany Central Florida crowd craving national attention. They lost starting quarterback Connor Shaw, lost running back Brandon Wilds and lost fumbles as both of those guys suffered injuries.
South Carolina held on for a 28-25 victory, but once again had trouble closing.
At least one player expects a more sustained effort.
“I think it’s some of the older guys, to be honest,” All-America defensive end candidate Jadeveon Clowney said after the Gamecocks (barely) improved to 3-1. “The younger guys are coming along great. It’s the older guys, they think we can just walk on the field and dominate teams. We aren’t the same team as we were last year.”
The Gamecocks had two weeks to shake their shaky finish in a 35-25 victory over Vanderbilt.
They face three road games in a row after next week’s home game against Kentucky.
Yes, it’s only Arkansas, Tennessee and Missouri. But at this rate, you never know.
Clowney said he chastised teammates for celebrating on the sideline and waving to people in the stands with South Carolina up 28-18 midway through the fourth quarter.
“This game isn’t over yet,” he yelled.
After Central Florida pulled to within 28-25 with 1:54 remaining, Clowney yelled again: “I told you so.”
Clowney himself hasn’t been the dominant force most people anticipated. The last time the 6-6, 270-pound junior played in Florida, he knocked Michigan running back Vincent Smith’s helmet into the Tampa sky in a game-changing Outback Bowl moment. Clowney got close to Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles twice, but didn’t get a sack.
He had 13 sacks last season, including 4.5 at Clemson. Two this season.
But Clowney isn’t blaming a less experienced secondary. During a postgame press conference in which he appeared with cornerback Victor Hampton, Clowney jumped in while Hampton was trying to explain why the Gamecocks gave up pass plays of 79 and 73 yards.
“Last year, we had a lot of pass rush. Before that we had Melvin (Ingram) and Devin (Taylor),” Clowney said, mentioning former defensive linemen now in the NFL. “We just have to improve up front with the pass rush. Guys have to come off the ball. We have to go; that’s what I tell them, every play, ‘You have to come off the ball harder than what you’re doing.’ (Central Florida) had like five or six seconds to throw the ball. … You can run two different routes with that much time.”
By the way, the Gamecocks won. They did so in hostile Bright House Networks Stadium, packed with lots of students wearing T-shirts making various unprintable fun of the South Carolina nickname.
It might have helped that head coach Steve Spurrier switched golf shirts at halftime.
Trying to change the luck?
“Nah,” Spurrier said. “It was hot out there.”
Spurrier went from black to white.
“I don’t usually wear a black shirt,” he said. “But I did wear one against Vanderbilt, and we won that game.”
It could have been worse. South Carolina forced four turnovers (three interceptions and a fumble recovery), one more than in the first three games combined.
South Carolina made the most of a heavy second-half mix of Mike Davis and enough adjustments on defense.
“When we’re on the same page,” Hampton said, “you see how we can play.”
But it wasn’t enough to finish without recovering an onside kick with 1:47 left.
“Last year, we were down at Kentucky pretty big (17-7) at halftime and we came back from that,” backup quarterback Dylan Thompson said when asked about halftime concern. “So it wasn’t really a big deal.”
Arkansas, Tennessee and Missouri probably aren’t worse than Kentucky was last year.
If the Gamecocks’ defensive line doesn’t get closer to its 2012 performance level, those games might mirror an overcast Saturday near Sea World.
Jadeveon Clowney knows that.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff