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Same ol’ story

USC falls short to another ranked foe

By Joseph Person
The State
Published: November 5, 2006

So close.


Not quite ... again.

In what has become a recurring theme in Steve Spurrier's second season, USC made things interesting Saturday against a nationally ranked team before falling to No. 12 Arkansas 26-20 before 74,946 at chilly Williams-Brice Stadium.  Many of the fans had already left when backup quarterback Blake Mitchell came off the bench to rally the Gamecocks to a pair of long touchdown drives.

Mitchell, a 2,300-yard passer in 2005 who was benched after two games this season, was 15-of-21 passing for 213 yards and two touchdowns in three series. But Mitchell's magic ran out with five minutes remaining.

After cornerback Darius Vinnett intercepted Mitchell at Arkansas 34-yard line, the Razorbacks converted a pair of long third downs to run out the clock. "He was playing beautifully until the last play," Spurrier said of Mitchell. "That's maybe why we're losers around here. We can't make all the plays. We have one or two bad ones that get us beat."

USC (5-4, 3-4 SEC) fell to 0-4 this season against Top-25 teams, with the past three losses coming by a touchdown or less. Arkansas (8-1, 5-0) avenged a 14-10 loss to the Gamecocks last season to remain unbeaten in conference play.

For the second year in a row, USC failed to keep Arkansas tailback Darren McFadden in check. After rushing for 187 yards against the Gamecocks in 2005, McFadden ran for a career-high 219 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries. It was the first time USC allowed a 200-yard rusher since Tennessee's Jamal Lewis went for 205 against the Gamecocks in 1997. But the SEC's No. 1 rushing offense made plays in the passing game, as well.

Hogs receiver Marcus Monk had career highs with 192 receiving yards on eight receptions, including two that converted a third-and-10 and a third-and-8 on the final drive.

"Our defense can't get the ball back," Spurrier said. "We try and we try and we try, and we just can't get it back." The Razorbacks' 495 yards were the most surrendered by USC since Missouri racked up 504 in the Tigers' 38-31 win in the Independence Bowl.

USC trailed 23-6 following a blunder-filled first half that included an offensive pass interference penalty that nullified a touchdown, a blocked punt that resulted in a safety, and a blown coverage that gave the Hogs a gift touchdown.

With 11 seconds left before halftime, Arkansas quarterback Casey Dick — who replaced freshman Mitch Mustain after Mustain's first pass attempt was intercepted — threw a Hail Mary pass for 6-foot-6 Marcus Monk, who was covered by defensive backs Stoney Woodson and Fred Bennett.

The ball went through Woodson's arms and ricocheted to Monk, who snared it for a 50-yard score. The play was similar to a touchdown catch by Tennessee's Bret Smith in the Volunteers' 31-24 win against USC last week. "Two weeks in a row, two guys fighting for the ball, (and it) ricochets to their guy," Spurrier said. "That's just bad play. We've got to quit saying we're unlucky. We're just bad back there."

Down 26-6, Mitchell replaced an ineffective Syvelle Newton and led the Gamecocks on touchdown drives of 92 and 99 yards on his first two series. He did it by completing the touch passes against the Razorbacks' man-to-man coverage that Newton had been unable to hit.

Mitchell had the Gamecocks moving again when the Razorbacks made a key adjustment, switching to zone coverage on first down from the Arkansas 41. With Sidney Rice open underneath, Mitchell threw downfield for Kenny McKinley.

But Vinnett picked off the pass, giving Arkansas the ball at its 34 with 5:05 remaining. "I dropped in my zone and read the quarterback's eyes," Vinnett said. "When he threw the ball, I just broke on it." Despite the pick, Spurrier said Mitchell played well enough to start next week at Florida.

Mitchell's 13-yard strike to Kenny McKinley was Mitchell's first touchdown pass this season. On USC's next series, Mitchell lofted a 10-yard pass toward the corner of the end zone, where Rice came down with it.

It was the school-record 20th career touchdown reception for Rice, who moved past Jermale Kelly and Robert Brooks. "Things were clicking for us," Mitchell said. "You get in that zone, and it seems like you can hit anything."

Well, almost anything.

USC will go to The Swamp next week for Spurrier's homecoming and take another stab at a ranked opponent. Senior cornerback Fred Bennett knows the Gamecocks are running out of time.

"We have to stop losing close games," Bennett said. "We have to get the mindset we can win these games."

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"We have to stop losing close games.  We have to get the mindset we can win these games." ~Fred Bennett (on the Gamecocks' losing close games)