Standing in the west stands of Williams-Brice on that cold November night, having watched South Carolina just take a 21-20 lead on a Blake Mitchell TD pass to Dion Lecorn, I muttered a simple plea to the team I'd followed devotedly for eight seasons: "Don't screw this up."
Not ten feet above me, a beat-writer friend who had cheered for South Carolina even longer turned to his colleague from The Gamecock and said, "If they don't find a way to screw this up, I'll buy you a case of beer tomorrow. And I'll do it with a smile on my face."
Across town, another college friend watched the results during a concert at the Art Bar. "They're going to screw this up," she said.
Three people, in different locations, all South Carolina fans, knew the unstoppable force of Gamecock history made it almost certain that this team stood on the cusp of glory, of salvaging a crumbling season -- but would screw it up.
Of course, they did.
With Clemson down to a last-ditch third-and-18, two passes gave the Tigers a first down. Another, and they were in field goal range. Unlike 2006, when an unlikely block sealed the South Carolina victory, there were no heroes to rise up and change inevitable. Clay Buchholz' kick sailed through the uprights. The season was over.
This is the last installment of a review I began months ago. Because of distractions, it kept getting put off. Because of distractions, and an unwillingness to do it. There are no real incentives for reviewing the last nausea-inducing chapters of an epic collapse.
Except that I stand in the middle of previewing a season, and realize that to really, truly move forward, you have to come to grips with what happened before.
And so, here is the fourth and final part of Up In Smoke.
One of the things about epic collapses is that they often don't seem to be epic collapses until it's too late.
The first sign that the 10-quarter slump from the last half of the North Carolina game to the nail-biting conclusion of the Tennessee contest might be more than just a normal funk came against Arkansas.
After his stirring backup performance against Tennessee, QB Blake Mitchell was anointed the starter for the 19th time in his South Carolina career. The Grover Cleveland of Gamecocks signal-callers led the team to Arkansas, a team that had notoriously disrupted successful South Carolina seasons.
And so it was with no real shock that South Carolina lost. What was breathtaking about the 48-36 loss was how it happened. Quite simply, it appeared as though defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix simply refused to prepare for Darren McFadden.
In the immediate aftermath of the loss, your humble correspondent did something he's never done before: Called for a firing. Any firing, really.
Wondering if that was the worst defensive performance in South Carolina history? In terms of yardage, it was. The 543 yards rushing far outpaces the 502 allowed against Georgia in 1974. Before tonight, the most South Carolina had ever given up in total yardage was 638, surrendered to FSU in 1988; Arkansas rolled up 651. And Darren McFadden's 335 rushing yards is the most by any one player, besting the 299 yards Moe Williams of Kentucky ran for in 1995. ...
Saturday night also marked the first time South Carolina has given up 48 points since Oct. 1, 2005. But when you're talking about historically bad numbers, what's a mark that's only been around a couple of years?
Nix, of course, talked about the meltdown after the game. He had to. And his "plan" for dealing with McFadden and Co. was perhaps the most shocking part of the whole sordid affair.
"You'd think that some of our leadership or someone would rise up and make a play," Nix said. "But I didn't see that."
Wonderful. The defense is getting blasted, and the coordinator's instinct is to wait for "someone [to] rise up and make a play"? Inspired.
The clouds were beginning to darken.
Given the disaster the previous week against Arkansas, it wasn't hard to see what would be the biggest challenge for the Gamecocks as QB/FB Tim Tebow came rolling into Columbia with the Florida Gators.
The most obvious mismatch of the game is Tyrone Nix's defense, which has proven incapable of defending practically any offensive system that features a mobile quarterback (think Michigan on a massive scale) facing the genius-rific offense of Urban Meyer, the spread-option guru. ...
Nix will have to find a way to shut down the Gators offense, or it will be a long night in Columbia. Again.
Once again, Nix and his squad found a way to exceed even our worst expectations. The Gamecocks got clobbered, 51-31, yielding 424 yards of total offense to Tebow. Tebow ran over, around and through the defense while the once-formidable secondary fell apart.
Robert, a reader of Garnet and Black Attack, probably echoed the sentiments of many Gamecock fans when he issued this simple request:
just end the season now.
In two weeks, South Carolina had beefed up the resumes of two Heisman candidates.
Was there any real doubt that the DaviSpiller monster would bring anything but pain with it when it came to Williams-Brice?
It was, perhaps, inevitable that the run-up to the Clemson game would once again bring a need to dismiss the latest rumors that Steve Spurrier was leaving South Carolina for any soon-to-be-open college football coaching job on the North American continent.
With the "will he stay or will he go?" discussion for 2007 thus dispensed with, Gamecock fans were able to turn their attention to the biggest game of every year: Clemson.
Despite misgivings, your humble correspondent could not bring himself to choose against the Gamecocks. Pride comes before the fall.
And so I and a few friends went to tailgate at Carolina-Clemson, having bought some new Gamecock gear at one of the bookstores. I think the guy from whom I bought my ticket made $5 on it, a symbol of how far South Carolina had fallen during its four-game skid.
We don't need to recount every excruciating aspect of the defeat. We all know what happened.
It was time for a familiar refrain.
Wait until next year? Yes, it seems hollow to appeal to next year again, and yet...
This is a young team. McKinley says he'll be back. LeCorn will be back. Smelley or SAVIOR OF THE PROGRAM Stephen Garcia will take over and can't do much worse than Blake. And Spurrier will be back, once he gets done coaching Texas A&M and LSU. ...
As I walked out of Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday night, I passed a crumpled-up, hand-made poster meant to catch the attention of ESPN's cameras. "STEVE SPURRIER [HEARTS] AN EASY WIN OVER PATHETIC BOWDEN!!!"
It was a painful reminder of the dreams that had lived just a few moments earlier, as the Gamecocks took a narrow lead and seemed to maybe have exorcised some of the spirits that haunt the team.
It seemed to be taunting South Carolina fans. "Your dreams are in vain. Your hopes are a mirage." It seemed to be a condemnation of the future.
With luck, in a few years, it will be a symbol of a painful past, by then forgotten.
It won't be easy.
No one ever said it would be.
Our answer should come soon enough.
Next year is a few weeks away.