South Carolina cornerback Captain Munnerlyn remembers looking around the locker room last year before the 12:30 p.m. kickoff with Vanderbilt and noticing some of his teammates rubbing the sleep from their eyes.
“Some of our guys were still yawning. I was like, man, we need to get up,” Munnerlyn said. “And by the time we got up, it was 17-0 (after the first quarter).”
After the Gamecocks’ offense slumbered through the 17-6 loss to the Commodores, USC’s nightmare continued for another five weeks.
The No. 6 national ranking, the hopes for an SEC East crown and dreams of a New Year’s Day bowl game — were spoiled by a season-ending, five-game losing streak.
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Several players say the beginning of the end was the loss to Vanderbilt, which had never beaten a Steve Spurrier-coached team and had dropped seven in a row to the Gamecocks.
“I don’t know if it was the early kickoff. I just think our heads weren’t quite into the game totally,” Gamecocks quarterback Chris Smelley said. “Vanderbilt was a great team. They had a great plan against us, and they played really well. I’m not taking anything away from them.
“But there was just something that didn’t quite seem right, and I thought it kind of started the spiral that ended the year.”
Turnovers by Smelley and Cory Boyd helped put the Gamecocks in an early hole, and the Vanderbilt defense made sure they didn’t escape. Rushing five defenders most of the game, the Commodores sacked Smelley and Blake Mitchell seven times and drew five false-start penalties on the Gamecocks’ offensive linemen.
Mitchell and Smelley combined to throw three interceptions, and USC finished with 26 net rushing yards.
“I’ve said many times that it was one of the worst offensive games personally I’ve ever attempted to coach,” said Spurrier, who was 14-0 vs. Vanderbilt prior to last year. “The second half of the North Carolina game through the Vandy game was pretty sorry. ... It was a sorry performance. And as the offensive coordinator and head coach, I have to take responsibility if the guys can’t stay onsides.”
Though they might have been sleepwalking during the game, the ramifications of the loss hit USC players immediately. A frustrated Emanuel Cook told reporters USC had lost to the “sorriest team in the SEC.”
“I was real stunned. I probably said a couple things I shouldn’t have said after the game. ... I apologize about that,” Cook said Sunday. “No disrespect to their fans or their team or their organization or anything like that. It was just my feelings that week.”
Cook, the starting strong safety, was not alone in his despair.
Munnerlyn returned to his dorm room and fielded calls from friends in Mobile, Ala., wondering what had gone wrong.
“I had friends calling me from back home, ‘Hey man, what happened to y’all? Y’all was No. 6, y’all would’ve probably moved up,’” Munnerlyn recalled. “At the time I was like, ‘I really don’t know what happened. We just lost to Vanderbilt.’
“Not to say they were just a bad team. I think we just came out thinking, we’re No. 6 in the nation, they’re going to lay down for us. But it wasn’t like that.”
USC players say they let the 6-1 start and No. 6 ranking — the Gamecocks’ highest in 23 years — go to their heads.
“That kind of success at South Carolina ain’t really been throughout the history. So of course when you get to No. 6, your chest kind of gets poked out,” junior receiver Moe Brown said. “We had just got through (two weeks earlier) beating Kentucky, the No. 8 team in the nation. We might have gotten a little complacent.”
Brown said the key is the Gamecocks learn from last year’s experience and take every opponent seriously.
“I guess the old adage is if it don’t kill you it’s good for you,” said Brown, who was asked whether the Vandy loss killed the Gamecocks’ season.
“I’m still here, so it didn’t kill us,” he said.
A year later, it might have woken them up.
Reach Person at (803) 771-8496.