BIRMINGHAM, Ala. | More than 20,000 South Carolina fans braved the cold and wind Saturday to help set a Papajohns.com Bowl attendance record.
If only the Gamecocks' offense had showed up, too.
For the second consecutive year, USC started off the new year with a dud, flailing and failing against the Big East's worst defense in a 20-7 loss to Connecticut before an announced crowd of 45,254 at chilly Legion Field.
USC (7-6) dropped to 1-3 in bowl games under Steve Spurrier, who began his postgame remarks with an apology.
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"The first thing I want to do, and hopefully half the team does, is apologize to about 30,000 Gamecocks that came down here to see a football game, and we couldn't put one on," Spurrier said.
"I thought we were ready to play. I thought we practiced pretty well. But obviously our offense was very sad, our defense not as good as it's been most of the time. We thoroughly got beat by a better team, a better-disciplined team."
The Gamecocks began the game with five consecutive three-and-outs and did not pick up a first down until midway through the second quarter.
It took a partially blocked punt by USC's Quin Smith, a long Stephen Garcia pass that was the offense's lone big play, and a 2-yard touchdown run by Brian Maddox with 3:24 left to prevent the Gamecocks' first bowl shutout.
"It kind of sucks for the fans who came down here and supported us, especially how times are right now," said USC linebacker Eric Norwood, who concluded his All-American career. "But it is what it is."
Senior offensive lineman Garrett Anderson thought the Gamecocks overlooked UConn (8-5), which tied for fourth in the supposedly inferior Big East.
"I think we didn't take it as serious as we were supposed to," Anderson said. "I think a lot of guys thought that since we were in the SEC and they're in the Big East that we should have won. That we were supposed to win. And we didn't have to earn the game."
The Big East has won all Papajohns.com games, although this was the first time the conference had faced an SEC school.
Quarterback Zach Frazer said USC players seemed to respect UConn, although the Huskies were hearing it from the Gamecocks faithful that made the five-hour drive to Birmingham.
"Everyone in the stands (was saying), 'What's the C stand for? Where's Connecticut? What's the Big East?'" Frazer said. "To come down here and get a win like this will definitely put the Big East on the map."
UConn coach Randy Edsall praised his defensive coaches, saying they knew what USC was running on a lot of plays based on how the Gamecocks were lined up.
While turnovers were the Gamecocks' downfall last year at the Outback Bowl, this year it was general ineptitude. USC finished with 205 yards against a defense that was allowing 382 yards per game.
The Gamecocks managed 28 yards on their first five series and could not gain convert when Spurrier gambled and went for a fourth-and-1 from his 32-yard line 10 minutes into the game.
After UConn called timeout, Spurrier called for "Snoopy" - a sneak by Garcia between the center and guard. But the Huskies loaded up at the line of scrimmage and stuffed Garcia for no gain.
Five plays later, Dave Teggart hit a 33-yard field goal to give the Huskies a 10-0 lead.
Spurrier said he was trying to get a little momentum and hoped Garcia would have noticed the Huskies' alignment and looked toward the sideline for guidance.
"They had three big dudes in there, so we were going to (call timeout and) punt it. But he went ahead and snuck it," Spurrier said. "That was our fault for not yelling out to him. That was something that we hadn't worked on a whole lot, but I thought we could make a half yard.
"But obviously that sneak was not a good play against their defense. It was a terrible play against their defense."
Things would get no better.
Spencer Lanning was ready to attempt a 52-yard field goal with the wind at his back in the second quarter. But Stephen Flint bobbled the snap and was dropped for a 9-yard loss.
Garcia, who had four turnovers in the Outback Bowl loss to Iowa, fumbled and threw an interception in the second half. He completed 16 of 38 passes for 129 yards, with one completion longer than 19 yards - a 38-yarder to D.L. Moore to set up Maddox's score.
When Garcia made good throws, his receivers often dropped them. After UConn went up 20-0 in the fourth quarter, USC had drops on three consecutive plays, which Spurrier called a first in his career. The Gamecocks dropped at least six passes in all.
The receivers were not the only USC players dropping the ball. Akeem Auguste let an interception go through his hands in the third quarter that he could have returned for a touchdown.
"I mean, how many dropped passes did we have?" Auguste said. "Defensively, we couldn't catch a cold out there. I don't know. Just a long day, really."
Imagine how the fans felt.