Dismal season ends with Palmetto Bowl loss
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The 113th edition of the Palmetto Bowl served as a cruel and painful microcosm of South Carolina's dismal season, one that saw the team battle through challenges caused by floods and the shocking mid-season resignation of Steve Spurrier.
Roller coaster ride just begins to describe the last three months for the Gamecocks.
Saturday's 37-32 loss to bitter rival Clemson was the final hammer blow to the Gamecocks' season-ending five game losing streak, four by seven points or less.
The final score, though much closer than most analysts predicted beforehand, offered little solace to USC players and coaches as they trudged off the field following the Gamecocks' second straight loss in one of the longest running rivalries in the country.
"Our team fought to the very end," Interim head coach Shawn Elliott said falling to 1-5 since taking over for Spurrier on Oct. 13. "I made sure our coaches prepared these guys to fight for 60 minutes. The players believed. They came out, they fought, they made plays and they played with great effort against a great football team."
For most or all of the coaches, the five-point setback marked the final time they would stand on the USC sidelines or call plays from the coaches box.
Change is coming, sooner rather than later, as USC athletic director Ray Tanner presumably enters the final stages of a closely scrutinized coaching search that has now lasted six weeks.
USC finished 3-9 and won't appear in a bowl game for the first time since 2007, while top-ranked Clemson moves on to the ACC championship game with an eye on a coveted spot in the four-team playoff
USC registered a season high in points and totaled 402 yards in offense as quarterback Perry Orth completed 13-of-28 passes for 219 yards and three touchdowns, and USC rushed for 181 yards on 38 carries.
Elliott, though, was not pleased with how Orth, a former walk-on, performed in his seventh straight start for USC.
Orth was a paltry 4-of-13 passing for 42 yards in the first half when USC was blanked until 24 seconds remained when Elliott Fry booted a short field goal.
"Perry Orth missed some throws and he made some poor decisions," Elliott said. "I looked at him and told him point blank we're about to make a change. Either you make the change in your play or we're going to make the change. That's the way we went into the locker room at halftime.
"I told him I was prepared to run the ball every single down in the second half. I told him we can't throw it and we're not making plays with our skill position players because you're not putting them in position to make plays."
Orth completed 9-of-15 passes for 177 yards and three touchdowns in the second half.
"He stepped up his game," Elliott said. "He did everything he possibly could do with the tools God gave him. He's going to be a phenomenal football player."
Scenes from Senior Day! Thank you Seniors! #Gamecocks #ForeverToThee pic.twitter.com/9ptmCEXzks— Gamecock Football (@GamecockFB) November 28, 2015
Unlike Orth, though, the USC defense continued to struggled deep into the second half.
Similar to two Saturdays ago in a loss to Florida, the failure of the USC defense to stop the opposing offense on third down proved to be the Gamecocks' downfall.
Clemson converted 9-of-13 third downs, 7-of-9 in the second half when the Tigers twice responded to touchdowns by the Gamecocks with long TD drives of their own.
The Tigers converted eight straight third downs from the 7:10 mark of the second quarter until three minutes remained in the fourth. In that span, Clemson scored four touchdowns and gained 341 of its 515 total yards.
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson was 20-of-27 passing for 279 yards and one touchdowns. Just as importantly, for the second straight year, the USC defense produced zero sacks of Watson.
Clemson also ran for 236 yards, with Watson amassing 114 yards and three touchdowns on the ground
"They managed to make enough plays and came out on top," Elliott said. "I wish we would have hit him a little more, but Deshaun Watson is a great quarterback. We didn't do enough to stop him. It's hard to stop a dynamic football player like he is."
Over the final four games, USC allowed opponents to convert 54.3 of third down opportunities (35-of-64) with three of the foes at or above the 50 percent mark.
With Clemson ahead, 21-3, USC redshirt freshman WR Deebo Samuel (team high five receptions for 104 yards) caught three passes on a 10-play, 76-yard scoring drive, including a 48-yarder and a 7-yard touchdown for USC's first touchdown of the game midway through the third quarter.
At that point, the Gamecock defense was called upon to make a stop. They couldn't do it.
Mixing the run and pass, Clemson powered their way down the field on a 12-play, 75-yard TD drive capped by a 4-yard run by C.J. Fuller with 2:16 left in the third quarter to expand the deficit to 28-10.
But again the Gamecocks offense responded with a quick scoring drive. This time, Orth found Cooper alone in the middle of the field about 15 yards downfield and the junior playing his final game in a Gamecock uniform cruised 57 yards into the end zone on the next to last play of the third quarter.
The Gamecock crowd intensified into a frenzy when linebacker Skai Moore and other USC defenders gang tackled Tigers receiver Artavis Scott and jarred the ball loose. T.J. Holloman scooped up the loose football and returned it to the CU 26.
After failing to take advantage of a pair of Clemson fumbles in the first half, USC took advantage of the third Tiger turnover by scoring on a short run by Shon Carson with 12:19 remaining.
USC elected to go for two points and they converted on a run up the middle by Lorenzo Nunez, who led USC in rushing with 75 yards on 10 carries, including a 47-yard scamper in the first half.
All of a sudden, the Gamecocks trailed by just three points (28-25) with plenty of time remaining.
What they urgently needed was a defensive stop, but failed to get one as Clemson converted a pair of huge third down situations on passes thrown by Deshaun Watson, driving 60 yards in 10 plays for a touchdown, giving Clemson a two-score lead at 34-25.
When Perry Orth fell about a half-yard short on a fourth-down run to the SC 25 with 1:43 left, the game looked over. The defense finally made a stop and Clemson kicked a 36-yard field goal go ahead by 12 points, 37-25.
USC scored a late touchdown on a swing pass to Carson with one second remaining to create a final score sure to raise eyebrows around the country (and perhaps with the CFP committee), but it was a classic case of too little, too late.
And left the Gamecocks to deal with yet another close loss in a depressing season jam-packed with unfortuitous circumstances and 'what ifs.'
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