There are plenty of unflattering ways to describe what happened Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium. The most damning, and the most accurate, is this: it wasn’t an upset.
The Citadel handed South Carolina its first loss to a Football Championship Subdivision team in 25 years, 23-22 in front of 77,241 fans at Williams Brice Stadium, but it wasn’t an upset. It was the first loss by any SEC team to an FCS school since Florida lost to Georgia Southern in 2013, but it wasn’t an upset. It was The Citadel’s first win over a Football Bowl Subdivision team in its last 29 tries, but it wasn’t an upset.
“They just played better than us today, and we can’t do anything about that,” South Carolina wide receiver Pharoh Cooper said. “They outplayed us, outhustled us, they outcoached us, and they just beat us.”
The team that averaged 5.7 yards per carry won. The team that averaged 2.9 yards per carry lost.
The team that had two touchdown runs longer than 50 yards won. The team that kicked three field goals in the red zone lost.
The team that recruited its home state well won (Ben Lippen product Tyler Renew ran for a game-high 174 yards for The Citadel). The team that has lost too many recruiting battles in its state lost.
The Citadel faced six third downs with fewer than 5 yards to go. It ran the ball for a first down all six times. It won. South Carolina faced the same situation seven times, running the ball on five of those plays and converting them with runs twice. It lost.
“It was a tough day, a tough day on all of us, and it will be a tough night,” said interim coach Shawn Elliott, who fell to 1-4 since taking over for Steve Spurrier. “It was a total disappointment. It’s my responsibility to have our football team ready to play.”
Elliott said he didn’t like his team’s demeanor during pregame (“I don’t know if it was all there in the beginning,” he said.), and Cooper said it’s possible he and his teammates didn’t give The Citadel their full attention because of their lower-division status.
When The Citadel upset South Carolina 38-35 in 1990, the entire state was shocked. No one who has been paying attention is surprised by what happened Saturday. The Bulldogs are now 8-3. The Gamecocks are now 3-8. Each team has earned that record.
“That is something you dream of as a little kid, playing in an SEC stadium against an SEC team,” Bulldogs quarterback Dominique Allen said. “Of course, I dreamed of playing on an SEC team, too, but I’ll take the situation how I can get it.”
Allen will just have to settle for playing the better team. South Carolina has lost four in a row and five of its last six. It has now lost two of its last three in its series against The Citadel dating back to that 1990 Bulldogs win.
“I felt like there was a little crack of disappointment after our Florida loss (last week),” Elliott said. “You try to do everything you can to keep them focused and energetic and moving forward. I don’t know what you attribute it to, maybe it’s playing an FCS team, but I tried to do my best to let them know that those guys were coming to play, they were coming to win, and that’s exactly what they did.”
There’s one chance left for South Carolina to save something palatable this season, and that will most certainly take an upset. Clemson, which is ranked No. 1 in the College Football Playoff standings, comes to town Saturday for the final game of the season. There will be no bowl game for a Gamecocks team that has played in a school-record seven in a row.
“Everybody is disappointed, but it’s football and you have to get ready to go play the next one,” Gamecocks defensive co-coordinator Jon Hoke said. “It’s going to test you as a man. There’s no question. These type of situations in my opinion are not character-builders, they are character-revealers, and we’re going to find out what kind of men we have in that locker room.”
They won’t find the answer in a playbook.
“We have to have a long meeting. I don’t know if Xs and Os right now is something you need to focus on,” Elliott said. “We have to see what we can do from a mentality standpoint moving forward to have the belief to go in there and play well and have the ability to win the game. We have some hard questions, and we have to find some answers in a short amount of time.”