COLUMBIA -- Down three touchdowns with 22 seconds remaining Saturday, and with Williams-Brice Stadium two-thirds empty, Citadel coach Kevin Higgins called a timeout.

One fullback dive later, he called another timeout with 16 seconds left.

"Twofold," Higgins said after No. 14 South Carolina's 41-20 victory. "No. 1, we wanted to give our guys a chance to run more plays; we have a lot of guys coming back. And we wanted to show we will never quit. We will keep battling right to the end, and that was a way of showing that to ourselves."

True, the Bulldogs finished a mere 4-7. But they improved and spread work ethic all over the field all season, Saturday included.

Quarterback Ben Dupree had smudges of red on the white number 2 in the middle of his Citadel blue jersey.

"Blood? Looks like blood," Dupree said. "Yeah, that's blood."

The 5-9, 180-pound sophomore had just led a 241-yard rushing effort against South Carolina.

"A 4-7 record is pretty much horrible," Dupree said.

But Dupree agreed with Higgins, who likes the big picture. The Citadel was 3-8 last year, its first with a triple-option offense.

Only sophomores

The Bulldogs averaged 14.9 points per game in 2010.

They averaged 23.4 points in 2011.

"Our team is a much, much better football team than it was last year," said Higgins, 32-46 after seven seasons at The Citadel. "We have the majority of our players coming back next year and we have a lot of competitors in our program. Our guys know we are very close to being a good football team."

Evidence includes the body of work within an 11-game regular season.

There were four losses by 10 points or less, with two in the last three games (14-12 at first-place Georgia Southern, and 19-14 against Samford).

The 28-27 comeback win at Chattanooga on Oct. 1 was near-miraculous.

And throwing USC a few triple-option formation wrinkles, and giving the Gamecocks fits for three quarters despite only one pass completion.

"Any time you're the underdog and you come out and just pound the ball, it feels good," said running back Rickey Anderson.

Darien Robinson led the Bulldogs with 88 yards rushing on 20 carries. He, like DuPree, is only a sophomore.

Plenty of time to make more strides.

"We have a long offseason," DuPree said. "What is it, eight months until our next game? But we just went out and battled with the No. (14) team in the country."

SoCon gauntlet

It won't be easy; the Southern Conference is such a nightmare. Georgia Southern clobbered relentless Wofford, which almost upset Clemson but lost to Furman, which just took Florida to the wire. Appalachian State remains the league's model program.

The Citadel tried an onside kick after Anderson's 12-yard run on fourth-and-2 trimmed South Carolina's lead to 34-20. The Gamecocks' Devin Taylor pounced on it, but it was one in a flow of never-quit statements.

"We ran the ball," Higgins said, "against a very good football team."

South Carolina gave up 79 rushing yards against Kentucky, 35 against Tennessee and four against Vanderbilt.

"We'll use this as a building block," Higgins said.

The message was heard loud and clear, right down to those last few timeouts.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter at @sapakoff.