COLUMBIA -- And the collapse continues.
South Carolina dropped its fourth straight game Saturday, 51-31 to No. 17 Florida, by following the same script it has for the last three weeks. The Gamecocks fell behind early because of two flubbed plays, rallied to make the game interesting, had another defensive meltdown and were ultimately too far behind to pull off the win.
"Pretty simple," coach Steve Spurrier said. "We get shoved around on the line of scrimmage too much. We're just not very good, simple as that."
Florida quarterback Tim Tebow added to his impressive credentials on the Heisman Trophy front-runner list, rushing for 120 yards and five touchdowns while passing for 304 yards and two scores. The Gamecocks' defense got a gift before the game when do-everything Gators receiver Percy Harvin was declared inactive with a sinus infection and migraines, but Tebow never minded the absence.
He just tucked and ran or hit wide-open receivers in the middle of USC's bedraggled defense, until he had enough points to win comfortably. The Gamecocks (6-5, 3-5 SEC) hung in at first and briefly took the lead in the first quarter, before yet another offensive blunder did them in.
"We started off giving them two touchdowns, pretty much," quarterback Blake Mitchell said. "That doesn't help your defense."
It's only the second time Spurrier has ever lost four straight games. The first was in 1987, his first season at Duke.
"We were always at least 13 behind," Spurrier said.
It was over as soon as Florida (7-3, 5-3) got the ball back in the first quarter, down 14-13 after USC erased an early deficit with two touchdowns in 11 plays. Tebow hit Andre Caldwell for 14 yards, ran for 10 yards through two busted tackles, scampered for another 10 yards and then took advantage of another Gamecock slip-up.
Facing first-and-goal from the Gamecocks' 1-yard-line, Tebow dropped the snap and lost 3 yards before he picked it up. He ran left, reversed and took off right before throwing off his back foot.
USC linebacker Melvin Ingram had the ball in his sights in the end zone but couldn't come up with it. Tebow ran off left tackle for a touchdown on the next play, Florida added another score before halftime and stayed in front for the duration.
"We're just not executing to the best of our abilities," defensive end Casper Brinkley said. "For us to beat good teams we got to execute and make plays."
If there was any doubt of the eventual outcome, Tebow nailed Aaron Hernandez with a 55-yard catch-and-run through three broken tackles on the first play of the second half. The Gators only needed three more plays to notch their fifth touchdown.
With a 34-14 lead, Florida never completely relaxed but seemed to know it could score anytime. USC scored 17 second-half points to twice cut the deficit to 13 but the Gators always had one more score in the bag.
Such as when Tebow threw another TD with 1:37 to play, after USC burned a timeout trying to get the ball back.
USC was out of sync from the start, when center Web Brown low-snapped to Mitchell and the ball was fumbled away.
"Web Brown comes off the field and says, 'Coach, the ball just slipped out of my hand,'" Spurrier said, shaking his head.
That led to a Florida touchdown within five plays, and the Gators added another when USC punter Ryan Succop tried a running pooch kick on the next possession and ran right into Florida's John Curtis.
Mitchell began tearing up Florida's soft pass defense and scored two touchdowns to take a 14-13 lead with 2:21 left in the first quarter. But when Tebow led the Gators back downfield for another TD and Mitchell had to answer, he was intercepted after throwing into double coverage and had Cory Boyd drop a wide-open third-down pass on the next possession to end immediate hope.
Four weeks after eyeing the SEC East title and ranked sixth in the country, USC clinched its second straight losing conference season and headed into its bye week with a nervous stomach. The Gamecocks are bowl-eligible but with nine other SEC teams battling for eight guaranteed conference spots, USC needs to beat arch-rival Clemson in two weeks or risk sitting home for the holidays.
Odds are USC will still go to a bowl after at-large bids are finalized, but for a season that seemed destined for greatness four weeks ago, the destination probably won't be the one they were planning on.
n NOTES: USC paid tribute to the seven victims of the recent beach fire by painting a black ribbon on the field with seven stars inside. Six of the stars were garnet for the USC students and one was orange for the Clemson student. ... USC took the field in black jerseys and black pants for the first time under Spurrier. ... Injured defensive backs Emanuel Cook and Captain Munnerlyn each played although Munnerlyn aggravated his foot injury after the first few plays and didn't return.