ATLANTA -- It was frustratedly fitting that the biggest play of the last game of South Carolina's season came as a result of the Gamecocks' biggest weakness.
USC valiantly stood in the face of losing its best player to come back and challenge No. 23 Florida State 19-17 with just under 12 minutes to play, and the momentum was squarely in the Gamecocks' favor. All they had to do was keep playing the same tight defense they had been playing.
The Seminoles (10-4) drove, picking up third down after third down, but USC forced another long try as the clock wound under 5:30. Facing third-and-goal from USC's 7-yard-line, having stuffed FSU on two straight plays, the Gamecocks' defense prepared for the one field goal-forcing stop they would need.
E.J. Manuel took the snap and almost went down as the pocket collapsed. He stepped to his right, bought just a fraction of time and threw.
The Georgia Dome crowd gasped as it saw what Manuel saw. Taiwan Easterling was running unopposed in the back of the end zone as USC's Akeem Auguste frantically tried to catch up. All the USC portion of the seats could hope for was a drop.
No such luck. Touchdown, game, set, match.
"I lost him. I lost contain," Auguste said, as twin diamond "A's", in the shape of the Atlanta Braves' logo, sparkled from each ear. "I slipped in the back of the end zone. He was wide-open."
The Gamecocks (9-5) were gashed by the pass all season. Their secondary, despite featuring a lot of experienced talent, simply could not defend against a downfield passer.
USC got a huge, huge break when FSU starting quarterback Christian Ponder sustained a concussion early on, removing him from the game, but was playing Ponder tight early. It did the same to Manuel, getting in his receivers' lanes and forcing him to make inaccurate throws. The Gamecocks only gave up 90 passing yards all night, easily a season-low that by far trumped the previous mark (142 against Vanderbilt).
But that one crucial breakdown allowed the back-breaking score, and that it came to Auguste's man seemed another cruel twist. It was in that same end zone, the same corner, that Auguste stood and watched Auburn's Darvin Adams catch a deflected Hail Mary pass at the SEC Championship Game that similarly whipped the Gamecocks into submission.
Those earrings were nice, but with the way Atlanta has treated Auguste, he might want to trade them in.
USC didn't do badly, but just bad enough. "I tell you one thing we did well," coach Steve Spurrier said. "We played really good pass defense."
They did, but following the year's theme, broke down at one inopportune time.
It wasn't all Auguste. On that same drive, FSU converted four third downs. C.C. Whitlock dropped an interception in the end zone that FSU turned into a touchdown on the very next play. All of the Gamecocks allowed too many yards after first contact. Had the offense just held on to one of the five turnovers it committed, perhaps there would have been no need to play catch-up.
They were all questions that loomed, but nothing that could be answered until the next time the Gamecocks take the field. USC will begin spring practice in March, missing several key players from this year's team but returning several more stars -- and perhaps some stars-in-the-making.
USC will simply have to find a definitive answer as to why the passing defense slid so much all season, although it played a fine game on Friday until the one play it had to have. Another long offseason waits, one that will doubtless be filled with reviews of whether 2010 was as successful a year as it could have been, considering the ending.
"I feel like we played our hearts out and at the end of the day ..." Auguste trailed. "I don't know, man. Y'all saw the game."
Another disappointing game, in the final chance to get a win. The Gamecocks notched several firsts this season, but Friday showed how difficult it still may be for them to turn the elusive corner.