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South Carolina misses opportunity, blows lead late in frustrating 35-31 loss to No. 15 Florida

That’ll leave a bad taste in your mouth for a while.

NCAA Football: South Carolina at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The South Carolina Gamecocks controlled roughly three quarters of their game against the No. 15 Florida Gators on Saturday, but the Gators took advantage of an untimely collapse to rally from a 17-point deficit and come up with the 35-31 win.

The Gamecocks got off to a uncharacteristically hot start, methodically working 83 yards down the field in 5 minutes, 43 seconds as quarterback Jake Bentley spread the ball around to multiple receivers and capped the drive with a two-yard touchdown to tight end Jacob August. When South Carolina forced a Florida punt, the Gamecocks went right back at it, this time using a run-heavy approach on a pair of lengthy A.J. Turner rushes to get into Florida territory. Bentley, still firing on all cylinders, rifled a laser to tight end Kyle Markway for a 19-yard touchdown to bring the South Carolina advantage to 14-0.

Florida’s offense finally got on the move near the end of the first quarter, marching down to the 5-yard line thanks to running back Lamical Perine and the use of some screen passes from quarterback Feleipe Franks. The Gamecocks looked to have a stop on third and goal, but Stephen Montac committed a costly pass interference penalty that gave the Gators a fresh set of downs — and a 2-yard Perine rushing score.

South Carolina responded with what looked to be an incredible Deebo Samuel kick return, but another costly penalty wiped it out, and the offense sputtered with a quick three-and-out. Now fired up, the Gators rammed the ball down the Gamecocks’ throats, going 69 yards in 3 minutes, 12 seconds with Jordan Scarlett keying the ground attack this time and Franks getting a 10-yard touchdown on a keeper.

With the game knotted at 14, South Carolina mounted the answer it needed, covering 71 yards in 12 plays, with Mon Denson carrying the load and Bentley leaping over the pile to give the Gamecocks a 21-14 advantage. The defense, after getting gashed on the Gators’ previous drive, did just enough to force a Florida punt as the second quarter drew to a close. Despite having a minute to work with, the Gamecocks elected to kneel it out and take the 7-point lead to the locker room.

The Gators got the ball back to start the third quarter and appeared to be in business, but South Carolina’s defense stiffened to force a 41-yard field goal attempt — which Florida juuust missed wide right. The Gamecocks promptly went three-and-out, but Deebo Samuel made a different kind of special teams play when he pounced on a muffed punt. Although South Carolina set up shop in the Florida red zone, it had to settle for a field goal when Bryan Edwards’ attempt at an incredible touchdown catch was broken up by a Florida’s defensive back’s equally impressive play on the ball. Parker White banged a 35-yarder through to put the Gamecocks up 24-14.

After forcing a Florida punt, South Carolina opened its next drive in the shadows of its own goal posts, backed up near the goal line. Then Deebo happened: On 2nd and 13, he took a slant 89 yards all the way down to the Florida 7. Rico Dowdle polished it off with a 4-yard touchdown run on an option pitch, and the Gamecocks went up 31-14.

On the Gators’ next possession, South Carolina looked to have possibly forced a third-down fumble after a bizarre sequence involving a bad snap and a tipped pass, but the play was blown dead and ruled a first down. Florida found its way into the end zone a few plays later, courtesy of an 18-yard Kadarius Toney reception, to draw the score to 31-21. After a quick South Carolina three-and-out, the Gators went back to their bread and butter, grinding down the field and getting Perine another rushing score, this one from 23 yards out.

Now clinging to a 31-28 lead, the Gamecocks opted to go for a conservative approach and run the ball, which resulted in another punt. With momentum fully on the Gators’ side, Florida marched right back down the field and into the end zone, with Franks scoring on a 4th and goal keeper from the 1-yard line. Florida secured its first lead, 35-31, with about 4 minutes left. Faced with a winding clock and a need to answer, Bentley made his first and unfortunately biggest mistake: On a 3rd and 11 scramble, he tossed an interception that effectively ended the game.

With the disappointing loss, the Gamecocks fell short of securing back-to-back winning SEC seasons, failed to notch just their third ever win in the Swamp, missed a huge opportunity to get a signature win against a top-15 team, and also failed to get a fun “revenge” win for coach Will Muschamp. From a stakes standpoint, this may actually be the worst defeat of the season.

South Carolina (5-4, 4-4 SEC) gets a chance to lick its wounds when it hosts Chattanooga next week.