COLUMBIA -- If South Carolina's performance had only been what the final score indicated, perhaps everybody would have walked out of Williams-Brice Stadium happy.
As it was, the Gamecocks left with an expected blowout win, 38-3 over S.C. State, and their coach sat at a table mulling why his team can't seem to put a dominant performance together.
"We just can't do it," coach Steve Spurrier said. "We had some chances tonight and didn't connect."
The Gamecocks won Saturday in their first matchup with the Bulldogs, the Division I-AA team located 40 miles away. That was the best part.
Otherwise, it was a mess of uneven play, disappointing performances from several of the Gamecocks' assumed playmakers and a nasty injury following the game's biggest momentum switch.
In short, for a team about to walk into No. 2 LSU next week and a squad that viewed S.C. State (1-2) as a chance to experiment and get a lot of subs some playing time, Saturday was anything but a laugher.
"It's a struggle, I tell you," Spurrier said.
Quarterback Blake Mitchell, so calm and poised last week in directing the monumental upset at Georgia, threw three interceptions and lost a fumble on a vicious hit from Fort Mill native Ryan Potts. Tommy Beecher, trying to cement the backup QB spot in the absence of injured Chris Smelley, was picked off by Rock Hill's Phillip Adams and had another interception overturned when it was ruled trapped.
The offensive line, after keeping Mitchell mostly protected against Georgia's all-stars, was absolutely abused by S.C. State's smaller, less-recruited scrappers. The special teams were again not-so-special.
Even when there was cause to celebrate, disaster was right around the corner. Nathan Pepper intercepted S.C. State's Cleveland McCoy and returned it for a touchdown, erasing a first-quarter 3-0 Bulldogs lead and sending his teammates in a rush to dogpile him in the end zone.
It wasn't so joyous when Pepper had to be helped up, limped off the field and didn't return with what officials diagnosed a left knee injury.
"Nate Pepper, he's got an MCL ligament," Spurrier said. "Could be torn. Not sure yet on that."
After the Gamecocks scored on their first second-half possession and increased their lead to 24-3, Jasper Brinkley intercepted McCoy at the Bulldogs' 35-yard-line. Seeking another nail in the coffin, Mitchell threw deep on first down toward Kenny McKinley in the end zone, only to see it swallowed by Bailey Brinson for Mitchell's third interception, the second where he woefully missed his target.
All was not so miserable -- Mike Davis and Cory Boyd again handled the running game and performed well, Davis anchoring USC's touchdown drive at the beginning of the second half and Boyd taking off on a 29-yard hurdling TD run. The defense picked off McCoy three times and wasn't gashed too badly by the Bulldogs' multi-headed rushing attack.
And after Mitchell's third interception, the Gamecocks (3-0) scored two more touchdowns, the last coming on a nice pass from Mitchell to freshman receiver Mark Barnes.
Mitchell ended up with a great night completion-wise, hitting 14 of his 21 throws. But the picks couldn't be excused as tips off receivers' hands or misread routes -- they were bad throws.
"I'm not going to be too hard on Blake," Spurrier said, after criticizing Mitchell's hesitance to throw after early mistakes. "He's our best quarterback."
Boyd (132 yards) and Davis (102) had excellent games and the USC defense spread out its assignments, taking the heat off Brinkley for once. Emanuel Cook led the team with seven tackles and the Gamecocks as a whole managed to get through the game with only five penalties, quite a switch from the 14 S.C. State picked up.
If USC had not played so well last week at Georgia, perhaps Saturday's game wouldn't have been as much cause for critique. But as Spurrier has constantly pointed out, this isn't supposed to be an average USC team and beating Georgia was supposed to be a stepping stone.
Not a return to the last time USC played a Division I-AA team, last year's 27-20 debacle against Wofford.
"It's good to win, it's good that our defense played so well," Spurrier said. "It was a game we had a chance to score a whole bunch of points ... but we just couldn't do it."
n NOTE: Rock Hill native and former York Comprehensive High School standout Spencer Lanning kicked his first collegiate PAT in the fourth quarter, settling the final score. ... Safety Brandon Isaac left the game in the first half with a sprained shoulder and did not return. Spurrier said Isaac may have popped his shoulder out of joint and wasn't sure if he would be able to play the rest of the year.