Silver linings are hard to come by after a 3-9 season, but South Carolina will walk away from the mess that was 2015 season feeling good about its fight.
“Our team fought to the very end,” interim coach Shawn Elliott said Saturday.
He was talking about a 37-32 loss to No. 1 Clemson. He could have been talking about the loss before that to The Citadel. Or the loss before that to Florida. Or the loss before that … Well, you get the picture.
The Gamecocks were 18-point underdogs and were within a score of the top-ranked and unbeaten Tigers (12-0) for stretches of the fourth quarter.
“Our coaches prepared these guys to fight for 60 minutes. The players believed. They came out and fought. They played with great effort against a great football team. They did everything in their power,” Elliott said. “I don’t fault our football team, I don’t fault our coaches. We did everything in our power to go out there and defeat the No. 1 team in the nation.”
They didn’t, though. Just like they didn’t … Well, you get the picture.
In what was supposed to be a bounce-back season for South Carolina, the only consistency the Gamecocks could find down the stretch was struggling gamely in defeat.
“I can’t tell you how privileged I have been to be the interim head coach here,” said Elliott, who was 1-5 after Steve Spurrier’s midseason resignation. “It’s been a great experience.”
Elliott spoke in the past tense, which makes sense. He and his staff will continue to recruit for South Carolina until they’re told to stop, he said after the game, but 1-5 interim coachess aren’t often retained.
Defensive co-coordinator Jon Hoke and several of South Carolina’s players spoke highly of Elliott despite the final record.
“I thought Shawn Elliott showed you what kind of man he is, the way he led this team,” Hoke said.
Even Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, himself a former interim, praised Elliott and his Gamecocks.
“I told Shawn after the game, that’s a real credit to him and the staff that their guys competed like that,” Swinney said. “They didn't quit.”
If only that consistent effort had translated into production. Saturday’s game against the Tigers felt like every game the last half of the season. Dormant stretches followed by big gains on offense. (The Gamecocks had three plays that went for 152 yards. The other 65 plays went for 250). Solid first- and second-down defense followed by third-down collapses. The Tigers were 9-for-13 on third down.
How does a team lose to an FCS team one week and then play the No. 1 team in FBS into the fourth quarter the next? The Gamecocks still are trying to figure that out.
“We haven’t had the ball bounce our way too many times this year, but we have stayed in the fight for pretty much all the games,” junior quarterback Perry Orth said. “We have continuously gotten after it, and that’s just the kind of guys we have on our team.”
The Gamecocks will need every ounce of that character to rebuild a program that has gone from No. 4 in the nation to No. 3 in its state in the span of 25 games. Elliott believes there’s hope.
“Considering we just played the No. 1 team in the country to 37-32 and saw the fight and the effort in the players’ eyes and hearts today, I would say they are in pretty good shape,” Elliott said. “We all understand there have to be some needs addressed but this foundation has been set and it’s not as far off as you may think. Whatever happens, it’s going to move forward. It’ll bounce back, I can assure you of that.”
Believing, though, is only part of the battle, as the Gamecocks have learned the hard way this season.