The story of South Carolina’s game against Tennessee is the story of South Carolina’s 2015 football season. The Gamecocks, as they’re currently constituted, are fighting odds their resolve cannot overcome.
It played out again Saturday in front of 101,253 fans in Neyland Stadium.
South Carolina stumbled.
South Carolina rallied.
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South Carolina lost.
The final score was Tennessee 27, South Carolina 24. It ended with a Jerell Adams fumble with the Gamecocks within range of a tying field goal and 18 yards from a go-ahead touchdown.
“What an effort by a great group of Gamecocks that nobody gave a shot,” interim head coach Shawn Elliott said. “Our football team believed. Our football team is getting better. Our football team is hurting just like it did last week.”
And after Week 2. And Week 3. And Week 5. Etc.
“It kind of rips you, and that’s what sports is about,” Elliott said. “When you love something that much, it should hurt.”
South Carolina (3-6 overall, 1-6 SEC) is trying to come up with answers, but the questions are tough.
How do you excel in the SEC with a team whose former coach acknowledged was at an overall talent disadvantage most weeks?
How do you get wins when you’re down to your third-string quarterback? Former walk-on Perry Orth completed 20-of-39 passes for 233 yards and three touchdowns, and Elliott called his performance “gutsy.”
“He lays it on the line day in and day out, play after play,” Elliott said. “This is a guy nobody thinks should be playing for our football team. He’s a great leader for us.”
When the Gamecocks tried to go with four-star freshman Lorenzo Nunez at quarterback, Nunez missed a play call and handed the ball off on a passing play.
“At that point, you have to make a decision, ‘Is he in the game? Is he out of the game?’ ” said Elliott, who clearly decided he was out.
How do you survive holes dug by a defense that must play every play nearly perfectly to have a chance to compete? South Carolina spotted the Volunteers two touchdowns Saturday with two lackluster defensive possessions to open the game. The Gamecocks lost by three.
“We have a team that believes in one another and hurts for each other and a coaching staff that believes in one another and an interim head coach who couldn’t be prouder of his football team,” Elliott said. “We are going to move on and we are going to continue to improve and we’re going to make the most of it.”
The absolute “most of it” this season would be a .500 record, and that’s going to take beating two teams – Florida and Clemson – who will be double digit favorites. To their credit, the Gamecocks do not believe their flaws are fatal. There are three games left to be played, and they won’t be any fun at all if the Gamecocks decide it’s not worth the effort to keep banging on a door that may be locked.
“The ball is going to bounce our way,” Elliott said. “We’re going to have to make it.”
“We are still going to play for each other, fight for each other,” junior linebacker Skai Moore said. “That is not going to stop. Nothing is going to change.”
That might be the problem.