On second-and-2 with roughly 10 minutes to go in the third quarter, South Carolina running back Rico Dowdle took the handoff and was stopped for a gain of 1 yard. On third-and-1, A.J. Turner was halted for no gain. The Gamecocks went for it on fourth down, and again the call was to Turner, and again the rusher was taken down without making any progress at all.
That series was emblematic of South Carolina’s 23-13 loss Saturday night to Kentucky, which beat the Gamecocks for a fourth straight time. Sold-out Williams-Brice Stadium was abuzz with the addition of a deejay, pyrotechnics to the “2001” entrance and most of the fans decked out in black. But all those extras couldn’t stop Kentucky from physically dominating the Gamecocks, and handing South Carolina the kind of loss we thought we had seen the last of under coach Will Muschamp.
As in getting manhandled in all facets. From an inability to pick up 1 yard, to getting stopped on fourth-and-goal from the 1 in the fourth quarter, to South Carolina’s offensive line having its worst game of the season, to getting gashed by the wildcat in a first half where the Gamecocks fell behind — you get the picture. It was a complete whipping, and not from the likes of an Alabama or Georgia, but a program that ended a six-year run of losing records only last season.
That’s right: A program that once lost 13 games to South Carolina in a 14-year span came to Columbia, S.C., and won by pushing the Gamecocks around.
You can’t pin this one solely on the offense, which out-gained an opponent for the first time all season, despite the crushing news that star receiver and kick returner Deebo Samuel was lost for the season with a broken left leg. You can’t blame this all on a defense that managed to keep South Carolina in the game. This one went back to toughness and effort, Muschamp specialties, and the kind of qualities he’s tried to instill in this program since the day he took over.
All this in a Williams-Brice Stadium that was jacked up for the home opener, featuring a 2-0 football team that had done some very promising things in the first two weeks. This against a Kentucky defense that’s legit, but not quite the North Carolina State unit the Gamecocks beat in their opener. This against a Wildcats team that was pushed into the third quarter by an FCS opponent last week.
But after recovering from Samuel’s touchdown on the opening play from scrimmage Saturday, Kentucky was in complete control. The Gamecocks may have gained more total yards, but they were miserable on third down, they were dominated in time of possession, and their kicking game was a complete mess. From a South Carolina perspective, this looked more like the team from early in Muschamp’s first season, and less like the upstart SEC East squad we’ve seen play the last two weeks. And so much of that had to do with the fact that Kentucky was stronger and tougher and faster, the very categories we all thought the Gamecocks had made big strides in from last year.
Quarterback Jake Bentley, magician that he is, kept the Gamecocks within striking distance by withstanding some hold-your-breath hits trying to pick up yardage on his own, and then finding freshman receiver OrTre Smith for a late touchdown on fourth-and-6. But this game was determined by South Carolina’s inability to stop the Kentucky wildcat early and inability to pick up short yardage late, both of them a result of the Wildcats simply whipping the Gamecocks man-to-man.
All is hardly lost: The Louisiana Tech Fighting Third-and-93s come to Columbia next weekend, and any South Carolina fan would have taken 3-1 after four weeks if offered it in the preseason. But this losing streak to Kentucky, four games in which the Gamecocks have blown a lead in every one, is beginning to defy understanding. On paper, this was one of those winnable games that great teams win. On the scale of missed opportunities Saturday in the SEC, only Tennessee’s inexcusable Hail Mary defense ranks worse.
That much was evident in the third-and-shorts and fourth-and-shorts South Carolina left on the field. The Gamecocks had a chance to go 3-0 on Saturday night and take a big step forward in Muschamp’s second year. Instead, they were roughed up by an unlikely aggressor and reminded of how far they still have to go.