Ron Morris

Morris: Season's worth of breaks catches up to USC

USC quarterback Stephen Garcia completed 25 of 50 passes for 300 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
USC quarterback Stephen Garcia completed 25 of 50 passes for 300 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. | ALL THE GOOD FORTUNE, the good luck and the good breaks South Carolina experienced in building its national ranking this football season all turned into misfortune, bad luck and bad breaks at Neyland Stadium.

We should have seen this coming. We should have listened more closely to the words Steve Spurrier spoke about his team, about how it had been getting by on less-than-stellar performances.

Sooner or later, USC's play was bound to catch up. Later became sooner in a 31-13 drubbing by Tennessee on a dreary Saturday night.

"We've been playing near like this, a lot like this, and winning some close games," Spurrier said of his team's performance. "You play some good teams, you're not going to win them (playing like that)."

Almost before the 96,263 in attendance could settle into their seats, USC had dug a hole it could not possibly crawl out of. The first half was as telling as it was disastrous for the Gamecocks.

Any description of the meltdown begins with USC's three turnovers on its first five possessions. That represented one-third of its total in the previous eight games. Unlike USC's mistakes in previous games, the other team capitalized.

Tennessee's three first-half touchdowns covered 43 yards in 42 seconds, 27 yards in 2:08 and 29 yards in 2:15.

But the level at which things went against USC was well beyond the lost fumble by Justice Cunningham following a 14-yard reception on the Gamecocks' third play from scrimmage; the lost fumble by Kenny Miles at the end of a rushing attempt on USC's second possession; and the lost fumble by Garcia on a scramble early in the second quarter.

It got so bad early, Spurrier abandoned his normal position on the sideline next to assistant coach G.A. Mangus, who signals in the plays, and took up a post some 40 yards from the action.

It got this bad:

-- USC had a chance to recover a fumble by Tennessee quarterback Jonathan Crompton in the first quarter, but instead of falling on the ball, Shaq Wilson attempted to pick it up and Tennessee pounced on it.

-- When USC finally moved into Tennessee territory for the first time with 9:40 to go in the half, the drive stalled when Garcia's third down pass slipped out of his hand and landed at his feet.

-- Finally, a beautiful 73-yard punt return for an apparent touchdown by Stephon Gilmore was nullified by a block-in-the-back penalty against D.J. Swearinger. The unfortunate part of the penalty is that Gilmore did not need the block to spring him to the corner.

"We had a lot of bad, bad plays and mental errors ... that we've had most of the year, really," Spurrier said.

The difference is that it all came back to haunt USC against Tennessee. In earlier wins, opponents seemed incapable of taking advantage of USC's mistakes. Consider how things have gone the Gamecocks' way in some of their victories.

Inexplicably, Mississippi faked a field goal in a 3-3 tie when facing a fourth-and-2 at the USC 24 in the second quarter. USC won that game 16-10, but the botched fake proved to be a huge momentum swing and a gift to the Gamecocks.

Kentucky must not have watched videotape of USC against Mississippi. Trailing 21-17 in the third quarter, Kentucky faked a field goal on fourth-and-6 at the USC 14. This failed fake cost Kentucky three points in a 28-26 loss.

There were more reasons for USC to count its blessings following the Kentucky win. The Wildcats dropped a sure touchdown pass at the 10-yard line in the first quarter, then had another sure TD slip through a receiver's hands in the end zone during the third quarter.

Finally, in USC's 14-10 victory against Vanderbilt, Spurrier admitted afterward that "God was smiling on the Gamecocks," thanks in no small part to a dropped touchdown pass by the Commodores in the second quarter. The play was followed by a 25-yard field goal attempt that sailed wide right.

No doubt, good things seem to happen to the better teams. Call it luck or good fortune or whatever. For the most part, good teams make their own breaks. But most coaches would also tell you the breaks probably even out over time.

Saturday, they seemed to even out for USC.

"We've got a pretty good record for the way we've played some games," Spurrier said. "Hopefully, we can learn if we want to beat some good teams, and Arkansas (on Saturday) is a good team too, we need to play a lot more efficiently."

And not rely on the breaks of the game.

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