COLUMBIA – The annual State Fair fortnight starts in Columbia on Wednesday. Yes, the fun includes the Crazy Mouse, Polar Express and live farm animals. Plus, an appearance by Foreigner.
Conveniently for drivers near the Williams-Brice Stadium/Fairgrounds complex, the South Carolina football team after Saturday night’s 35-28 victory over hapless Kentucky plays three straight road games.
But thrill rides follow these Gamecocks. No. 13 South Carolina got by Kentucky with Jadeveon Clowney resting — mysteriously resting to hear head coach Steve Spurrier tell it. Trips to Fayetteville, Knoxville and the other Columbia look every bit as stomach challenging as deep fried Spam.
“We can play defense,” Spurrier said after South Carolina failed to close strong once again. “We just can’t play very well in the fourth quarter right now.”
Connor Shaw and Damiere Byrd opened with a bang, Mike Davis continued to run like an All-American and this Elliott Fry kid is one able kicker.
Puzzle piece: Can a 4-1 team that has been outscored 51-22 in the fourth quarter by Vanderbilt, Central Florida and Kentucky survive for three weeks in the SEC wilderness?
Kentucky is the third-best team in Kentucky.
The Mildcats (1-4) have already lost to Western Kentucky and Louisville and are in no mood to schedule Murray State.
There was no sustained evidence Saturday night that the Gamecocks fixed the “fundamentals” issues Spurrier complained about this week.
Or that this show is tour-worthy.
The Gamecocks scored on five of their first six possessions, failing only on a drive in which Dylan Thompson subbed for Shaw. But they just couldn’t give fickle students a good reason to leave early.
Kentucky started its rally by forcing South Carolina to settle for field goals, then forced a Bruce Ellington fumble on a kickoff return.
Suddenly, a 27-7 lead was shaved to 27-21.
Any resemblance to the Vanderbilt and Central Florida wins was purely obvious.
“We don’t play real smart,” Spurrier said. “We may be limited though. We don’t tackle very well. They give our linebackers a juke and our guys are diving over here and they’re running down there a lot. I don’t know how you change that.”
Here’s an idea: Spurrier ought to get former South Carolina baseball stars Matt Price and Tyler Webb to lecture the football team about closing.
The road has been bumpy for the Gamecocks so far in 2013. Two strange trips, and a 1-1 record.
At Georgia. Assistant coaches fought on the sidelines, Clowney complained about formation tactics on defense and the Gamecocks lost, 41-30.
At Central Florida. A 28-25 win, but South Carolina had to hang on and Clowney questioned the effort of veteran teammates. A sweat-soaked Spurrier changed shirts at halftime and (again) questioned the Gamecocks’ strategy on defense.
Clowney might not be back at Arkansas next week; he sat out Saturday night with bruised ribs. Nagged most of the season by a bone spur in his foot, Clowney simply isn’t the reliable force everyone expected. It’s not a lack of effort or a talent outage, but the injuries and complaints are adding up.
At Missouri three road games from now, Clowney might sack the quarterback 4.5 times. Or watch from the sideline.
“If he doesn’t want to play, he doesn’t have to play,” a clearly miffed Spurrier said. “It’s as simple as that.”
Kentucky — ranked 14th in the SEC in scoring offense — gave up five sacks last week in a 24-7 loss to Florida, which led the SEC in scoring defense and total defense coming into this weekend.
Minus Clowney, the Gamecocks had just two sacks Saturday night.
Shaw remains upbeat.
“I have full confidence in our offense,” the veteran quarterback said. “We still haven’t played the best we can and we’ll progress through the season. And our defense will be fine; you all (the media) need to relax about that.”
Something about that Arkansas trip for South Carolina. Always tough.
Tennessee found some hope Saturday against Georgia.
Missouri, 5-0, just went to Nashville and clobbered a Vanderbilt team South Carolina had trouble putting away.
It’s not quite the State Fair, but quite a carnival act. Foreigner should have such a road grind.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff