ORLANDO, Fla. -- There were no revved up halftime speeches, no dire statements, no panic.
No. 12 South Carolina trailed UCF 10-0, but the Gamecocks felt confident they had the perfect game plan for the second half. Line up in the I-formation and tell Mike Davis, ‘Go.’
Davis did, rushing for three touchdowns in the second half and 167 total yards to help the Gamecocks survive a scare, 28-25 on Saturday afternoon.
But sandwiched between some of the bigger plays Davis made were valid concerns for this team moving forward. South Carolina looked flat and emotionless to start. Then when it grabbed a 28-10 lead early in the fourth quarter, the Gamecocks lost their focus again.
For the second straight game, South Carolina nearly whittled away a lead late. Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney saw some of the younger players on his team celebrating and waving to family in the stands in the fourth quarter, and he had to tell them, ‘This ain’t high school anymore. You gotta play until the clock ends around here.’”
Davis -- for his terrific second half-performance -- nearly cost the Gamecocks when he fumbled late on the UCF 3 with South Carolina leading 28-18. UCF turned the miscue into a touchdown and cut the South Carolina lead to 28-25 with 1:54 to go. Despite the added late drama, South Carolina recovered the onside kick to seal the win.
Coach Steve Spurrier, in his typically blunt demeanor, blasted his team for turning into the “careless Gamecocks, the stupid Gamecocks” after taking such a big lead and nearly blowing it. “We don’t know what the heck we’re doing when we get a big lead,” he said.
UCF also took advantage of a less-than-stellar South Carolina defense, which allowed a plethora of big plays and wide-open receivers. UCF got back into the game after Blake Bortles threw a 73-yard touchdown pass to Rannell Hall to cut the lead to 28-18. The final UCF touchdown was set up on a 79-yard pass to Breshad Perriman.
Spurrier said bluntly, “We’ll have some new defenses. We’ll have some guys standing back there for 30 yards instead of what we’re doing now. Because it’s not working.”
Compounding matters, South Carolina also has to deal with the loss of starting quarterback Connor Shaw, out two weeks with a sprained right shoulder. Though backup Dylan Thompson has gotten his share of playing experience, the South Carolina offense dominated only after Spurrier switched gears and decided to play “the way we used to play 20 years ago,” riding a dominant run game.
Spurrier has not shied away from using the run game before, and he did not with Davis -- who ended up with 26 carries while doubling his touchdowns on the season. South Carolina, clearly superior on both lines, won the game because it ultimately wore down the UCF defense in the second half.
“Whenever coach calls for me, I’m here,” said Davis, who was fighting through a cold. “I guess I showed up the second half.”
And yet, UCF was still in the game at the end thanks in large part to Bortles, who showed why he has drawn interest from NFL scouts. Bortles is the biggest reason why UCF jumped out to an early lead, and nearly completed an improbable comeback. He showed poised in the pocket and a knack for finding the open receiver, going 25-of-36 for 358 yards and two touchdowns.
It was Bortles who keyed a big win over Penn State a few weeks ago with a solid performance. But when you are the underdog, you cannot afford to make the mistakes UCF made. UCF had four turnovers -- including two interceptions and a fumble by Bortles -- that South Carolina ultimately turned into 14 points.
The Knights also failed to take advantage of several key opportunities, scoring one touchdown off four South Carolina turnovers, and settling for a field goal in the second quarter after getting to the South Carolina 8.
“We have a lot of young kids and we can’t sustain on turnovers and short fields,” UCF coach George O’Leary said. “Again, when you have a chance to make plays, you have to make them and we didn’t make enough plays in the second half. It was a tough game.”
Even still, UCF showed that it could perhaps be the biggest threat on the Louisville schedule in the American Athletic Conference and a potential 10-win team again. The effort was there. In fact, O’Leary does not fault the effort his team showed. “There’s no quit in us. I knew they would never quit.”
South Carolina did not quit after trailing early, either. Davis made sure of that.