ATLANTA -- The South Carolina defense was supposedly fixed.
It wasn't. It was simply hiding.
The No. 18 Gamecocks knew they had to shut down Auburn uber-quarterback Cameron Newton at least once, and then let their offense get enough points to win. With sterling defensive games in each of the last three games, featuring interceptions, fumble recoveries and morale-lifting defensive touchdowns, USC thought it could get at least one stop.
What it found out was Newton, the nation's best player, didn't get that tag just because he can slip tackles so effectively it's like he bathes in Crisco. No, the Gamecocks found out Newton can pass, too -- and that their secondary, maligned all year but vastly improved over the last three games, was doing well because of it who was playing, not how it was playing.
"We obviously played terrible today, but it's not all the secondary," defensive head Ellis Johnson said. "Got to put some pressure on the guy. We didn't."
Florida, Troy or Clemson didn't dare to throw downfield because it's neither team's strength (Troy can do it, but when you're trailing 56-7 at the half, what's the use?) The first time Auburn and USC clashed, the Tigers threw but set up the passing game with 276 rushing yards.
On Saturday, the Gamecocks played to stop the run, hardly rushing Newton because they didn't want him to take off. So the Heisman Trophy favorite simply sat back, yawned once or twice and picked USC apart like leftover Thanksgiving turkey.
Newton found receiver Darvin Adams for 217 yards in the first half. The majority of those passes went to Adams when USC's Stephon Gilmore, being pushed for All-America honors, was trying to cover.
"We just didn't do our job," Gilmore mumbled.
Gilmore allowed Adams to get past him for a 55-yard touchdown on third-and-long, but the fault for the secondary was far from his alone. It was a group effort, particularly on the Hail Mary scoring toss that ended the first half, a throw that was set up by a squib kickoff and ended with DeVonte Holloman leaping to swat the ball down, deflecting it and then staring with open mouth as Adams caught the TD.
"I tried to tip it down and ended up popping it up," Holloman said.
Prior to that point, USC had been shredded by Newton but had begun to stop him. A touchdown catch by Alshon Jeffery made it 21-14 with 16 seconds to play, but the squib kick gave No. 2 Auburn (13-0) a short field and the chance for a two-play touchdown.
The Gamecocks got the ball first in the second half, but the shock of the late TD never wore off. The Gamecocks kept missing sacks of Newton when they had him pinned, missing tackles on the Tigers' runners and absolutely could not cover the receivers, which combined with a non-existent blitz, spelled trouble from the start.
C.C. Whitlock knocked down an pass to the end zone, but Newton found a wide-open Emory Blake, running two steps ahead of D.J. Swearinger, to set up a possession inside the 5-yard-line. Two plays later, Auburn led 35-14.
It ended with the same glaring question that has been evident since mid-season -- what has happened to the Gamecocks' secondary? One didn't have to look far to find this kind of massive breakdown -- a 41-20 loss to Arkansas on Nov. 6, when another passing quarterback was allowed to do whatever he wanted.
"I don't know what to say about this one," Akeem Auguste said. "They handed it to us, really."
With such a collection of talent there, the problems seem mystifying.
"We struggled a little bit today," Holloman said. "With the players that we got, we hate giving up passes. We did, and we've got to keep working."
USC gave up 589 yards, 351 through the air. Adams didn't catch a pass in the second half, but Newton threw for 335 overall. The Gamecocks gave up nine-of-12 third-down conversions. Newton's previous best passing game was 216 yards against Alabama -- he had more than that to one guy in the first half.
Johnson bristled when asked if the secondary was broken beyond repair, pointing out the last three games as examples. The unit did play much, much better during those games, but on Saturday, it heavily slipped.
"It's not all about the secondary," he repeated. "Lot of missed assignments came at other positions. Secondary's made a heck of a lot of plays in the last four or five weeks. We definitely didn't play consistently back there tonight, but I didn't see consistency in one spot on the field."
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