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Game recap: Saunders, Brinkley score game balls

Game balls

Weslye Saunders: The Gamecocks’ have a capable replacement at tight end if, as expected, Jared Cook leaves early for the NFL. With Cook benched for most of the second half, Saunders caught four passes for a career-high 58 yards and a touchdown. He also recovered a Mike Davis fumble.

Jasper Brinkley: The middle linebacker finished with a season-high 11 tackles, including a sack and 1.5 tackles for loss. Brinkley forced a fumble that the Gamecocks recovered.

What went right

The Gamecocks pressured Clemson quarterback Cullen Harper, sacking him four times — although their inability to bring him down resulted in a 50-yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Ford in the second quarter. ... USC finished with 20 first downs (one more than Clemson) and allowed one sack on 47 pass attempts.

What went wrong

Chris Smelley was done in by first-half interceptions for the second game in a row. Smelley threw five picks against Florida and Clemson, all of which resulted in or led to touchdowns. ... What happened to the tackling? The Gamecocks, particularly the defensive backs, had a hard time bringing down the duo of James Davis and C.J. Spiller, who combined for 179 rushing yards and three touchdowns.

Key stat

Forget the talk about the SEC’s dominance: The conference went 4-6 against the ACC during the regular season, including a 1-3 mark on Saturday when Florida (vs. Florida State) was the only SEC team to win. USC was 1-1 against the ACC, beating N.C. State in the opener and falling to Clemson.

Injury report

Backup free safety Akeem Auguste did not play the second half after apparently aggravating a hamstring injury. Freshman tailback Eric Baker (sprained ankle) did not make the trip.

The buzz

The Gamecocks likely will limp into the Outback Bowl in part because all of the SEC’s other mid-level teams, except Mississippi, stumbled down the stretch, as well. USC, LSU, Vanderbilt and Kentucky lost on Saturday, paving the way for the Gamecocks to return to Tampa for a likely matchup with Iowa. Now the task for USC will be selling tickets in a tight economy to watch a team that dropped its last two games by 67 points.

Extra points

When the Outback took USC in 2000, the Gamecocks had lost their final three regular-season games: Tennessee, Florida and Clemson. USC beat Ohio State 24-7 in its first of two consecutive Outback wins against the Buckeyes. ... Senior receiver Freddie Brown came out of hiding at Clemson to make his first catch since the Georgia game in September.

— Joseph Person