COLUMBIA -- Web Brown fell into a padded armchair, exhausted and drained after another afternoon in the trenches. That wasn't abnormal.
Doing it after a loss was.
"Got to sit back and relax and re-focus," Brown droned, head down and hands clasped. "Find out what went wrong and fix it."
When discussing South Carolina's offensive line, that's a lot easier said than done. In a 17-6 loss to Vanderbilt last week, it was simple to find out what went wrong.
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And now the No. 15 Gamecocks have to find some kind of solution before beginning the stretch run of the season.
"We just haven't done it yet," offensive line coach John Hunt said. "For whatever reason ... there's physical breakdowns and there's mental breakdowns. It's just a mess out there."
The line has been struggling all year, but it wasn't a big concern for two reasons. One, Hunt's lines in his previous two years always struggled before hitting their stride mid-year. Two, the Gamecocks were winning in spite of it.
But against the Commodores, USC gave up seven sacks, improving its SEC-worst total to 26. Brown, Seaver Brown, Jamon Meredith (twice) and Justin Sorensen also false-started, giving Vandy 25 free yards.
The loss knocked USC out of the Top 10 and gave coach Steve Spurrier his first defeat to Vandy in 15 tries. It also re-started the same cycle -- with no protection, USC's quarterbacks couldn't get in a rhythm, so Spurrier again started playing with the constant yo-yo that is the Gamecocks' starting signal-caller.
No matter which QB Spurrier selects -- Chris Smelley re-won the job -- he can't be expected to do much if the line can't give him room to set and throw. Spurrier has mentioned the memory of Syvelle Newton, the mobile QB who saved the line and the team a lot of grief last year, more and more as the season's progressed, but it's painfully obvious Newton isn't coming back.
The Gamecocks are stuck with who they have at quarterback, which might not be so bad if the line was standing up in front. But it's not, and the quarterback gets hit, and the receivers can't get to the underthrown ball, and the running game stalls ...
"I told our guys before the game it was this time last year that we made the switch at halftime of the Vanderbilt game, found a little combination, played well and ran with it from there on out and finished strong," Hunt said. "But we just didn't play very well. So we're behind where we were last year, put it that way."
Heading to Tennessee today, needing a win to stay in the SEC East championship race, the Gamecocks have shuttled linemen in and out of practice trying to find the right mix. Web Brown at center and Meredith and Sorensen at the tackles seem entrenched but the two guard spots could be helmed by Seaver Brown, Lemuel Jeanpierre, James Thompson or Kevin Young.
Even Heath Batchelor, who's only played in one game (S.C. State), could start at right guard, as Spurrier indicated in practice this week.
But if it doesn't work -- again -- where do the Gamecocks turn? Hutch Eckerson, Quintin Richardson and Kyle Nunn are redshirting this year along with Pierre Andrews, who's already redshirted but is using this season to add weight and muscle.
That leaves Garrett Anderson (a three-game starter at left guard but a backup in recent weeks), Gurminder Thind (a backup who's been fighting a sprained ankle all year) and little-experienced Hardee Sanders, Terrence Campbell, Ryan Broadhead and Jeremy Burgess.
Hunt's plate is full, trying to find the right answers, because a shoddy line obviously limits the play-calling. The Gamecocks are mired in a six-quarter stretch of touchdown-less football, and about to play at a notorious noise factory where they've won once in 13 tries.
The one was two years ago, the last time they played in Knoxville. But that memory only holds so much water when it comes to discussing this year's woes.
"I ain't going to throw a dart on a dart board and find out where it hits and sticks," Hunt said. "I'm going to see how it goes. I told them I was really going to watch every snap in practice and hopefully I feel good about somebody rolling in there."