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October 1, 2011

USC falls short in frustrating loss



COLUMBIA, SC -- After scuffling on offense for most of the game, South Carolina simply ran out of time on a final, potential game-winning drive.

As a result, the long losing streak to Auburn goes on.

Outplayed most of the afternoon, USC saw a solid defensive effort go for naught with a frustrating 16-13 loss to the Tigers in front of 81,767 fans at Williams-Brice Stadium that dropped USC to 4-1 overall, 2-1 in the SEC.

USC hosts Kentucky next Saturday at 12:20 p.m. in the last of a four-game homestand. After that, the Gamecocks hit the road for three straight games, a stretch that now will clearly make or break their season.

Replays showed receiver Bruce Ellington was tackled at the AU 30-yard line with two seconds left after he caught a pass for a first down, theoretically giving USC one more snap. But the officials ruled the game was over.

The SEC released a statement after the game saying the officials followed proper procedure following the final play. The referee didn't signal first down, so the clock didn't stop.

Afterwards, Spurrier disputed whether right call was made at the end.

"We had to get it into field goal range. We made the first down and I thought his knee went down with at least one second left," Spurrier said. "In fact, I know it did. Well, I think I know it did. The ref said, 'When his knee went down, the clock showed zero-zero.' I said, 'Well wait a minute, don't you review that?' I thought they reviewed that. He said, 'No, it's zero-zero.' He said, 'That's the game. It's all over.' I thought his knee hit and had one second. We had the first down."

In reality, though, the game was lost long before those final frantic moments.

Auburn ran 92 offensive plays compared to 42 for USC, and outgained the Gamecocks 358-289. The Tigers pounded the ball all afternoon at the Gamecocks, gaining 246 yards on the ground.

Spurrier insisted after the game that USC's season is far from over following just the third loss in the last 19 games at Williams-Brice Stadium.

"We're not heartbroken. We haven't played well enough to expect to win," Spurrier said. "We lost to this team last year and we still came back and won the Eastern Division. We lost to Kentucky last year and won the Eastern Division. If we could regroup, somehow, offensively, we're going to be OK. We'll look and see how we can get better and go from there. We'll make some changes if we need to and we probably will."

The Tigers averaged 24:03 in possession time in their first four games of the season, the worst figure in the SEC.

USC was denied the sixth 5-0 start in school history. The last time it happened was 2001. USC had won 16 of their last 18 home games before Saturday's setback.

Facing the worst defense in the Southeastern Conference through the first four weeks, USC managed just 289 total yards - 50 coming on a long TD pass to Alshon Jeffery in the first quarter - and converted a miserable 2-of-10 third down chances compared to 11-of-22 for the opportunistic Tigers.

Auburn allowed their first four opponents on the season to convert nearly 60 percent of third down opportunities. But, similar to most games this season, USC searched throughout the game without success to find any offensive rhythm.

The USC defense battled for as long as they could before finally tiring late in the fourth quarter.

"Our defensive team had a heck of a game," Spurrier said. "They made some third downs on us there at the end. Offensively, we could do nothing. We were pretty sad the entire game. We couldn't run the ball and we're not a very good passing team. They made some third downs and ended up winning the game. I'm proud of a lot of our guys. A lot of our guys played very well, some not very well. Give Auburn credit."

Stephen Garcia was 9-of-23 passing for 160 yards and one touchdown. Marcus Lattimore carried the ball just 17 times for 66 yards, both season lows.

"We couldn't get Marcus any room at all," Spurrier said. "They were right there waiting on him just about most of the night. He made one run. One run opened nicely."

Meanwhile, Auburn's Michael Dyer literally willed his team to a win with a school record tying 41 carries for 141 yards.

Trailing 13-9, Auburn was able to convert four straight third downs during a 12-play, 57-yard drive en route to the go-ahead touchdown with 1:38 remaining. Tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen caught a nine-yard pass, but fumbled the ball at the goal line. He fell on it just before he slid out of bounds to make it 16-13.

Starting from their 20, USC got a roughing the passer penalty on Auburn and an 11-yard run by Garcia to move to the USC 46. Two incompletions and a holding penalty sent up a third-and-20. Garcia found Jeffery for 19 yards to the AU 45.

Because it was fourth down, USC couldn't spike the ball and Lattimore ran three yards for the first down to the AU 42. Twelve seconds remained.

Garcia threw incomplete to Jeffery before hitting Ellington over the middle. The sophomore was tackled at the AU 30 for a first down, but the clock read zeroes when he got up and the officials ignored Spurrier's pleas to review the play to see if any time remained.

"I wish we had all three timeouts," Garcia said. "That ended up costing us. I had that throw to Alshon that was a little high. That wasted about four seconds. I thought we could have gotten at least a play off with that one second left. It just didn't happen."

Marcus Lattimore registered his ninth rushing touchdown of the year when he scored from 15 yards out with 5:58 remaining in the third quarter, giving USC a 13-9 lead. It took USC just two plays to score after starting at midfield. Garcia hit Ellington for a 35 yard pass down to the 15, setting the stage for Lattimore, who broke five tackles on his way into the end zone. He has rushed for at least one TD in every game this season.

Ellington finished with three receptions for 60 yards. He was one of only three Gamecock receivers with a catch on the day. Jeffery had five for 86 yards and Brandon Wild had one reception.

The afternoon started badly when USC was forced to abandon their "Wounded Warrior" uniforms because game officials had difficulty reading the numbers during warm-ups.

In addition, starting left tackle Kyle Nunn, a fifth-year senior, missed the game with a lower back strain. He was replaced by true freshman Mike Matulis, who struggled in his first career start before being lifted.

"It hurt a little bit but it didn't cost us the game," Spurrier said. "It's wait and see. He's got a little problem there with his back. I don't know if he can play the next week or not."

After being lifeless for more than two quarters, the USC offense finally took advantage of good position, needing just two plays to score from midfield following an Auburn punt and catcher's interference flag.

Garcia connected with Bruce Ellington over the middle for 35 yards to the AU 15 before Lattimore did the rest, breaking several tackles on his way into the end zone for his ninth rushing touchdown of the season.

USC appeared to have Auburn stopped late in the fourth quarter when C.C. Whitlock intercepted a Trotter pass, but the senior from Chester, SC was stripped and the Tigers fell on the loose ball at the AU 48.

However, Whitlock redeemed himself minutes later when he made a leaping interception in the far right corner of the end zone.

After stopping Auburn again, USC took over at their 12 with just over seven minutes remaining. The Gamecocks, though, went three and out to give the ball back to AU with 5:27 left.

In essence, USC was calling on their defense to win the game for them. But the Tigers methodically moved down the field behind quarterback Barrett Trotter, who was 3-of-5 for 34 yards during the game-winning drive.

What did we learn in the first half of Saturday's South Carolina-Auburn game at Williams-Brice Stadium? The USC offense has some serious issues to work through.

Except for a 50-yard touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery, the Gamecocks faltered again and again, and headed to the locker room trailing 9-6.

USC managed just 151 yards in the first half, 70 on the ground, against the worst defense statistically in the SEC.

Garcia finished the first half 5-of-9 passing for 81 yards, while Marcus Lattimore had nine carries for 36 yards.

USC's best player in the first half was Melvin Ingram with six tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks and an interception.

After USC went three-and-out on the opening possession, Auburn started their opening possession from midfield. They ran a delayed screen on third down for a 23-yrad gain down to the USC 24.

Moments later, a late hit penalty on Melvin Ingram following another screen pass gave the Tigers a first-and-goal from the SC 3. But the defense held and the Tigers settled for a 21-yard field goal with 10:12 left in the first quarter.

USC has not scored first in a game all season.

Lattimore fumbled on USC's second play of the ensuing possession. The play was reviewed, and the call upheld, giving the Tigers possession at the SC 36.

But Antonio Allen intercepted his third pass of the season when Auburn ran a trick play on their second snap of their ensuing drive. The intended receiver was open for a few seconds until Allen closed the gap quickly and picked off the ball at the 12. He returned it 19 yards to the SC 31.

USC took advantage of the turnover by looking for one of their main weapons - Jeffery. From midfield, Garcia lofted a deep pass downfield and Jeffery outleaped the Auburn defender to haul in the pass around the 10-yard line. He bulled his way into the end zone from there with 6:57 left in the first quarter.

Jeffery scored his 17th career touchdown on his longest reception of the season. It was his second TD of the season.

Garcia picked up a first down on USC's next possession but the gain was negated by a holding penalty. The first quarter ended with Auburn driving towards the red zone by utilizing a high tempo offense.

Eventually, Auburn scored on a short touchdown run by Dyer in the opening minute of the second quarter. But the extra point attempt ricocheted off the upright to keep the score at 9-6.

Garcia then overthrew Ace Sanders on a pass near midfield and an Auburn defender picked it off. But the USC defense stopped the Tigers again.

The second quarter featured little for the sell-out crowd to get excited about. USC's three meaningful second quarter possessions ended with two punts and an interception.

AUB: 3-6-0-7 = 16
USC: 6-0-7-0 = 13

SCORING SUMMARY:
1Q - AU, Parkey 21-yard FG, 10:12 (0-3)
1Q - USC, Jeffery 50-yard pass from Garcia (Xpt no good), 6:57 (6-3)
2Q - AU, Dyer 1-yard run, 14:22 (Xpt no good), (6-9).
3Q - USC, Lattimore 15-yard run (Xpt good), 5:58 (13-9)
4Q - AU, Lutzenkirchen 9-yard pass from Trotter (Xpt good), 1:38.

FINAL STATISTICS:
Total Yards - USC 289, AUB 358;
Passing Yards - USC 160, AUB 112;
Rushing Yards - USC 129, AUB, 246;
Individual Passing - USC, Stephen Garcia 9-23 for 160 yards; AUB, Barrett Trotter 12-23 for 112 yards;
Individual Rushing - USC, Marcus Lattimore 17-66; AUB, Michael Dyer 41-141.

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