South Carolina football rode the high of last week’s upset over Georgia as far as it would take them.
And it got the Gamecocks pretty far against No. 9 Florida at Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday — just not quite far enough in a 38-27 loss.
In driving rain, Carolina (3-4, 2-3 SEC) led by a touchdown early in the third quarter and three points going into the fourth. But things fell apart late as the defense struggled for stops on short fields, the offense went dormant at key moments and the officials made several controversial calls and non-calls that had coach Will Muschamp irate.
The primary target of fans’ wrath came early in the third quarter, with South Carolina leading 17-10. Florida tied things up with a 75-yard scamper from running back Dameon Pierce, but USC coaches and supporters wanted a false start and offensive holding calls against the Gators.
Sophomore cornerback Israel Mukuamu, the Gamecock player at the center of the holding non-call, said after the game he felt he was held down the field.
Late in the third quarter, South Carolina used eight consecutive runs to march inside Florida’s 10-yard line. On first-and-goal, however, freshman quarterback Ryan Hilinski was sacked, and the Gamecocks had to settle for a field goal to lead 20-17 heading into the final 15 minutes.
Florida, facing fourth-and-3 on the next possession, got a conversion from junior QB Kyle Trask, who evaded pressure and squeezed in a tight throw for the first down. He followed that with a 25-yard passing score to put the Gators up.
“I just got to finish,” senior defensive lineman Javon Kinlaw, who flushed Trask from the pocket on that fourth down, said. “I had him, could have had an opportunity to make a big play like that. Just gotta finish.”
Hilinski was then sacked and fumbled on the next drive, setting the Gators up at USC’s 29-yard line.
“There was a little miscommunication, but we did not protect well on the play,” Muschamp said. “That was the major issue. They got pressure too quick.”
Sophomore cornerback Jaycee Horn appeared to bail the offense out with a crucial interception in the end zone, but it was called back on pass interference, leading the student section to start throwing plastic bottles and towels on the field. On the next play, Trask threw a five-yard touchdown pass to put UF up 31-20, and Muschamp berated the referees on the sideline over a non-call of an apparent pick by a Florida receiver.
South Carolina’s offense failed to convert a fourth down on its next possession, ending a stretch of three crucial drives in which USC gained just 13 yards. With the ball in Gamecock territory, the Gators got another pass interference call against Horn and extended their lead to 38-20 on another touchdown pass. Muschamp was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after the ensuing kickoff.
Muschamp mostly declined to comment on questions regarding the officiating after the game, but he did express frustration that the unsportsmanlike penalty was called “40 yards” away from him.
“I’d rather he drop it at my feet. ... Don’t go 40 yards away and then drop the flag, how about that?” Muschamp said. “Gutless.”
Hilinski did throw for a late touchdown to put USC within 11, but by then it was too late, and South Carolina’s hopes for the program’s first ever back-to-back wins over top 10 teams were extinguished.
Outside of the game’s final two drives when Florida sat back and bled out the clock, Hilinski was 8-for-22 passing with 91 yards on the afternoon, much of that yardage coming from a 41-yard flea flicker to senior receiver Bryan Edwards on the opening possession. In particular, he missed several deep shots down the field when his receivers seemed to have a step on the defensive backs.
“Obviously it was a little rainy today, so I feel like it just threw off our timing a little bit. We had opportunities down the field, we just couldn’t connect,” Edwards said.
Who: South Carolina vs. Tennessee
When: 4 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 26
Where: Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, Tennessee
TV: SEC Network