WHEN YOU HAVE THE nation's top-ranked team on the ropes, you must deliver a knockout blow. South Carolina could not do it Saturday night at Williams-Brice Stadium. Instead, Florida came up with the haymaker that staggered the upset-minded Gamecocks.
One play turned the entire game.
"We had a chance. We had a chance," Steve Spurrier said following Florida's 24-14 victory. "At 17-14, we had a chance. (But) you've got to finish it off."
USC had driven 50 yards to the Florida 22 by the end of the third quarter. At the very least, the Gamecocks positioned themselves to tie the game with a field goal. To that point, USC had made mistakes, but none that proved too costly.
Then, on third-and-3, quarterback Stephen Garcia made what proved to be a fatal decision. The passing play was design to go to the right side of the field. Garcia thought he saw an advantage to his left.
His pass - intended for an unsuspecting Moe Brown - was deflected and fell into the hands of Florida defensive end Jason Trattou. By the time Brian Maddox brought Trattou down at the USC 26-yard-line, the game's outcome was decided.
That one play sucked all the air out of USC's high-flying balloon. A highly charged crowd that rocked the stadium moments earlier during the playing of "2001" fell silent. A USC sideline that saw players dancing throughout the break between quarters suddenly slumped in unison.
Quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus and Spurrier were the first to approach Garcia as the quarterback sauntered to the sideline. Then Spurrier bent over and buried his head in his hands.
A team that had played so well to that point and with the highest of energy was suddenly sapped of all its fuel. The Florida touchdown that followed four plays later was a mere formality.
"It's tough losing the way we did. We had them," Garcia said. "We could have at least gotten a field goal out of that possession, and to come away with nothing and (for Florida to) return it down to the 20-yard line. It's pretty demoralizing for us."
It is difficult to put all the blame on Garcia. His outstanding play was instrumental in putting USC in position to end Florida's 19-game win streak and possibly crush the Gators' national championship hopes.
To that point, Garcia had completed 15 of 26 passes for 177 yards without an interception. He had directed USC on a couple of touchdown drives, which does not sound like much until you consider that Florida's defense had yielded only eight TDs all season. USC's 84-yard touchdown drive in the first quarter was the second-longest against the nation's best defense this season.
On top of that, Garcia's ability to think on his feet showed just how far he has advanced in his first season as a full-time starter. He is just now beginning to take charge of USC's offense and run it the way Mangus and Spurrier want it run.
Unfortunately, this was not the time to take such a chance. To beat a team like Florida, a club like USC must play near-perfect football. It must minimize mistakes and hope any big ones do not prove costly.
"I wouldn't say it drained the momentum totally, but it definitely hurt," tight end Weslye Saunders said. "That one hurt. I don't even want to think about it, because I definitely feel we had the momentum going, the crowd was into it. We just knew we were going to score."
With a 10-point lead, Florida played like a champion plays. Garcia was 2-of-5 passing with another interception and managed only 9 yards through the air the rest of the way. After being sacked twice in the first three quarters, Garcia was flattened four times behind the line of scrimmage in the final quarter.
"Once that happened," running back Brian Maddox said of the interception, "everything seemed to go downhill from there."
Following another near-miss against second-ranked Auburn in 2006 in the same stadium, Spurrier said USC fans should not cheer a losing performance. Perhaps they heeded his advice Saturday because, by the time the Gamecocks trudged off the field, few fans remained to applaud their effort.
They apparently left that duty to Florida coach Urban Meyer.
"I always like to start by saying how much respect we have for the coach at South Carolina and for their entire team," Meyer said. "This environment is SEC football, and you never take that for granted. For those of you that only cover SEC football, I guess you get a little spoiled with stadiums like this, and the noise level was real."
What was equally real was how Florida showed why it is the best team in the country. Week after week it takes the best shot from an opponent, and week after week the Gators find a way to win.
USC deserves credit for shaking off three consecutive losses to prepare for and play some of its best football. The Gamecocks played with the "duty" "integrity" "honor" and "courage" of the words displayed on the backs of their uniforms - a salute to the military's Wounded Warrior Project.
They put themselves in position to pull off the upset of the college football season. In the end, though, they could not deliver the knockout punch necessary to turn back a team of Florida's caliber.