COLUMBIA -- Cory Boyd honestly didn't seem to know it until it was pointed out.
"I just realized we lost mostly every game of the second half of the season," South Carolina's senior tailback said, shaking his head after the Gamecocks' fifth straight loss Saturday. "I look back and I'm still trying to figure out where we went wrong."
The answers to Boyd's musings will be defined in the coming weeks and months, as USC sees what the future holds. The Gamecocks will know in a week if they'll receive a bowl bid and if they'll be any major changes -- such as a potential assistant coach shakeup -- before they take the field for 2008 spring practice.
But for the next week, as their season hangs in limbo and they hope for a kind selection committee to grant them a favor, they were left staring at another agonizing loss. To Clemson, 23-21, at home, in a game they had won.
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I'm not surprised they lost -- following this team through every practice, every game over the past four seasons has shown me USC can lose in ways I never thought existed. The Tigers were the more talented team Saturday, and when Mark Buchholz connected on the game-winning 35-yard field goal as the last second ticked off the clock, I felt no pity or sympathy for USC.
The term "deserve" was thrown about the postgame interviews, as in, "Do you guys feel you deserved to win?" or "Do you deserve to go to a bowl game?"
My mental reply to all of those was the same as Clint Eastwood said in his epic "Unforgiven."
"Deserve's got nothing to do with it."
The Gamecocks should get what they earned -- nothing. They should not be coddled or given a tough-luck pat on the back from their rabid fan base because they didn't earn that, either.
What USC got was a 6-6 season, capped by a loss it gave away. Clemson won because the Tigers played like a big game-winning team at the right time.
The Gamecocks knew the situation. They knew for the past two weeks that if they didn't beat Clemson, they'd have a real good shot of missing a bowl game.
So armed with this knowledge, they:
n Threw an interception on the game's first play. Fifth-year senior Blake Mitchell was hit on the throw, yes, but he had plenty of time to see the double coverage surrounding a 6-foot wide receiver.
n Had two punts blocked, the first turning into a recovered touchdown and making it five straight games where USC spotted the opponent a first-quarter lead.
n Committed a foolish -- read: stupid -- pass interference penalty in the third quarter that led to another Clemson score. On third-and-14, Cullen Harper threw a pass to Rendrick Taylor that was a) too low to be caught and b) well short of the first down. Rodney Paulk shoved Taylor in the back anyway, giving Clemson another chance and as it turned out, a field goal eight plays later.
And even with all that, the Gamecocks still led, 21-20, and forced a Clemson punt. With the ball and the lead, 5:01 to go, all they had to do was pick up a few first downs.
So Clemson got the ball back, 2:09 to play, but Eric Norwood came up with a sack of Harper and then knocked C.J. Spiller out of bounds on the next play for a 1-yard loss.
Third-and-18, just got to stop it.
Tigers on the Gamecocks' 34, 29 seconds to go. Can still win with a stop or by forcing a long-distance field goal attempt.
Failed, as part of three -- three! -- straight passes to the same receiver.
This kind of performance doesn't earn any kind of postseason berth. Even if the Gamecocks are accepted, I'd advocate declining the bid -- hasn't the season been embarrassing enough without taking someone else's cast-off bowl game?
There were some questionable calls and some momentum-changing ones (although the overturned USC fumble recovery that Carlos Thomas ran to the Tigers' 8 was correct), but the bottom line was USC lost because it didn't make the plays a championship-contending program makes. Whether that's a product of winning only one conference title in program history or recruiting kids who don't have enough "want-to" or bad coaching isn't my area of expertise.
What I know is the best players stand up for themselves and their team when the chips are down and make the big plays to win. Joe Montana was sick as a dog in the 1979 Cotton Bowl, yet rallied Notre Dame from a 22-point deficit in the fourth quarter. Curt Schilling was oozing blood from his surgically-repaired ankle, yet he led the Red Sox to a win in Game 6 of the 2004 American League Championship Series.
The Gamecocks don't ever get those kind of performances and might never know if they can find them this year. Whether they can find them next year or the next or 10 years from now is the question.
"We just go by the feeling," freshman Dion Lecorn said, talking about how the team plans to rebound. "We don't want to feel like this no more."
Glad to hear it. But it seems to me you've been feeling like this the past five games, and nobody did anything about it then.