South Carolina faces difficult stretch run for bowl game
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — These are desperate times for South Carolina's football team — again.
It was only a month ago the Gamecocks had to right themselves after a 1-3 start with two straight wins, including a stunning 20-17, double overtime upset at then-third-ranked Georgia. However, two second-half collapses — including getting outscored by Tennessee 24-0 the final two quarters to lose 41-21 a week ago — have South Carolina (3-5, 2-4 Southeastern) on the verge of missing the postseason for the first time under fourth-year coach Will Muschamp.
"That's the focus this week," center Donnell Stanley said. "Bounce back and get that winning feeling back."
The challenge starts Saturday against Vanderbilt (2-5, 1-3), a team similarly fighting for its postseason life heading into the season's final month.
It was not supposed to be this much of a struggle for the Gamecocks this season. Muschamp confidently proclaimed he had the deepest and most talented team of his tenure. With four games left, that has not played out often enough on the field due to injuries and inconsistency.
There have been squandered leads down the stretch like against North Carolina, Florida and the Vols, each time South Carolina leading in the second half. There've been injuries to experienced starters like quarterback Jake Bentley , out for the season since the Tar Heels loss, and tailback Rico Dowdle , who has missed all but one play of the past two defeats with a knee sprain.
And then there are the too frequent break downs and mistakes where a team that executed early can't do the same near the end.
Against Florida, freshman quarterback Ryan Hilinski fumbled after getting hit deep in Gamecocks territory — a fourth-quarter turnover that led to a Gators touchdown as they overcame a 20-17 deficit to win 38-27.
South Carolina surrendered two long TD passes and gave up a score on a blocked punt in the second half to fall at Tennessee last week.
"We're not getting the production we need," Muschamp said.
Unless that obvious situation changes fast, South Carolina's season may end after next month.
The Gamecocks have won 10 in a row over Vanderbilt and enter as two touchdown favorites to extend that streak. Still, the Commodores accomplished what South Carolina couldn't when they beat Missouri 21-14 two weeks ago the last time they played.
Commodores coach Derek Mason said the players came back refreshed from a week off and want to continue the momentum picked up from beating Missouri.
"For us, it's a game where we've got to be smart, play smart and do our jobs and play a good football team," Mason said. "That's what we're trying to do, be a good football team ourselves."
South Carolina receiver Bryan Edwards said the players came into the week with a strong attitude to improve, despite the frustrations of coming up short.
"Anytime you're losing, it's not fun," said Edwards, a senior who became the program's all-time leader in receptions in the Tennessee game. "Food tastes worse when you're losing. But we're just trying to enjoy our season and get back to our winning ways."
Things won't be easy if South Carolina hopes for a fourth consecutive bowl game with Muschamp. After Vanderbilt comes No. 20 Appalachian State on Nov 9. There's a final road game at Texas A&M a week later (someplace the Gamecocks have never won) before closing the season with state rival and defending national champion Clemson.
Muschamp has liked his players' attitude throughout the season, never too high after success nor too low after failure. He has no doubt they'll be prepared for a difficult final stretch.
"We've got a really good locker room, good culture," he said. "Our guys will handle it in a first-class manner."