Cats fumble away winning streak

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Different year. Same result.

For the 15th time in 15 tries, Steve Spurrier defeated UK, as South Carolina’s head coach led his team to a 38-23 victory over the Cats (5-1, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) in front of 76,200 fans at Williams-Brice Stadium. The loss handed the Cats their first loss of the season and snapped a six-game winning streak that dated back to the end of last season.

But unlike past games, this Spurrier victory over UK didn’t feature trickery or high-flying offense. This time it was about his dominant Gamecock defense that took advantage of nearly every UK mistake. The Gamecocks (5-1, 3-1 SEC) scored 14 points on four Cats’ turnovers — and it could have been much worse if the UK defense wouldn’t have stopped several USC drives in the first half.

“We had a lot of opportunities this game to take care of business,” said defensive end Jeremy Jarmon. “We gave the ball away a few times, we didn’t make stops on defense, we made errors on special teams. The first five games of the season we were able to get by without making as many mistakes and tonight we made mistakes and a great team, South Carolina, capitalized on it.”

The two biggest turnovers of the game came at the hands of USC defensive end Eric Norwood.

On the Cats’ second offensive play of the game, Andre Woodson dropped back to pass but was leveled by defensive end Jonathan Williams at the 10-yard line, jarring the ball loose. Norwood picked up the loose ball at the 2-yard line for an easy touchdown and an early 7-0 lead. It was the second time in the past three games the Cats’ fumbled on their second offensive play of the game for an opposing score.

Norwood wasn’t finished.

After USC staked to a 17-10 halftime lead, Norwood found the end zone again on the Cats’ opening drive of the second half.

On 2nd-and-7 at the USC 40-yard line, Woodson, while under pressure from defensive end Casper Brinkley, tried to fire a backwards pass to UK fullback John Conner. The ball fell short of Conner, and because the pass was backwards, it was ruled a fumble.

Norwood picked up the fumble and took the turnover 53 yards for a score, putting the Gamecocks up 24-10. The sophomore’s touchdown tied an NCAA record for most fumble recoveries returned for touchdown in one game.

“Some of (the turnovers) were just uncharacteristic of how we play,” said UK head coach Rich Brooks.

The fumble was Woodson’s third miscue of the game. While the senior completed 23-of-40 passes for 227 yards and two touchdowns, he lost two fumbles and threw his second interception in two games.

“It’s pretty disappointing, because we definitely felt we could compete in this game and come away with a win,” Woodson said. “But turnovers do a lot of damage in the game.

Woodson, who appeared to be rattled after several big hits from the Gamecocks, was under pressure the entire night from the USC defensive line. The Gamecocks tallied three sacks on Woodson.

“We’ve got to do a better job of protection,” said offensive coordinator Joker Phillips. “That was another one of our goals, to protect the football. When we say protect the football, we say protect the football and protect the quarterback.”

After Norwood’s second touchdown Lones Seiber added two field goals to cut the deficit to 24-16, but a 7-yard touchdown pass by USC quarterback Chris Smelley to Patrick DiMarco put the Gamecocks up 31-16 with 11:01 left.

UK cut the deficit to eight when Woodson found Steve Johnson for a 6-yard touchdown pass with just under seven minutes to play, but the Gamecocks made sure that would be as close as the Cats would get.

On the ensuing drive, Smelley hit tailback Cory Boyd for a 27-yard touchdown pass out of the backfield to end the Cats’ comeback hopes and put them on the losing side of the scoreboard for the first time this year.

“In my mind, it was a typical SEC football game,” Brooks said. “The team that made the most mistakes ends up losing, and that was unfortunately us tonight.

“We’ve got to roll up our sleeves and go back to work. We got to remember what we did to get to this point. I still believe we’re a very, very good football team, but we just made way too many mistakes tonight to get a win.”