TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- They fumbled, threw interceptions, missed tackles and squandered promising drives.
The fairy tale became football again for the Gamecocks on Saturday.
A week removed from a stirring win over Mississippi State that led many to believe destiny was on its side, No. 23 South Carolina ran its magic carpet ride aground in a 27-17 loss to Alabama before 83,818 at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
"I'm upset," said South Carolina coach Lou Holtz, whose team lost its first game of the season and dropped its record to 4-1 (2-1 SEC). "We're better than that."
Their margin for error was deemed small against a team with Alabama's talent and depth, but the Gamecocks headed home believing they played a significant role in their own undoing.
South Carolina shaved a 10-point deficit to 20-17 with 10:20 left in the game and forced Alabama (2-3, 2-1) into a punt on the ensuing drive, leading many to think the Gamecocks were headed toward a victory approximating their stunner the week before.
But on second-and-9 from the South Carolina 48, a crack-back penalty was called on receiver Brian Scott as split end Ryan Brewer took an end around, forcing the Gamecocks into a second-and-28 from their own 40.
"The play was coming my way, and I cut him," Scott said of his block on cornerback Milo Lewis. "It was a boneheaded play, and it was a big play that was a part of us losing the game."
On the next play, Lewis picked off a pass by quarterback Phil Petty, ending the threat and, essentially, the game.
"We're down by three, and we're in their territory," Holtz said. "We got in a rhythm, first-and-10, and we have a chance to do some things."
South Carolina did plenty with its quarterback rotation thanks to the sprained ankle of Petty, who sat out until the 6:16 mark of the third quarter.
To that point, sophomore Erik Kimrey and freshman Dondrial Pinkins doubled up behind center and produced mixed results, combining for an interception and a fumble.
"This is our home," said Crimson Tide fullback Dustin McClintock, whose team was playing in Tuscaloosa for the first time this season. "South Carolina was 4-0; they had a great team. But is our place, and we've got to win here."
They had to win, anywhere and any way. The previous week's loss to Arkansas dropped the Tide's record to 1-3 and triggered speculation regarding coach Mike DuBose's future at Alabama.
But Saturday's victory granted them new life, if only for another week. Holtz said when junior quarterback Andrew Zow entered the game late in the first quarter to replace sophomore Tyler Watts -- who aggravated a pulled hamstring -- the Crimson Tide was "a different team."
Zow passed for 149 yards on 14-of-26 passing and rushed for 22 yards on five attempts.
"They looked like Alabama last year," Holtz said.
The Gamecocks reflected on the implications of several botched drives in the first half.
South Carolina reached the Alabama 12-yard line three times but was scoreless on each, managing 13 yards on 12 plays inside the 20.
After Reid Bethea hit a career-long 49-yard field goal on the Gamecocks' first drive, he flubbed his next two attempts -- both of which appeared considerably easier.
His second, a 28-yarder that would have put South Carolina up 6-0, sailed wide left. His third, a 21-yard chip shot that would have trimmed the Tide's lead to 10-6 at the half, bounced off the left upright.
If you asked the Gamecocks' offense, Bethea should've been missing extra points instead. Their second drive began at the Tide 17 but stalled at the 11; their fifth reached the 10 but was snuffed out when strong safety Marcus Spencer intercepted Kimrey; their sixth produced first-and-goal at the 4 but fizzled after a run and two passes yielded no gain.
"You can take a team out of their game, and that's what we were trying to do," said receiver Jermale Kelly, who hauled in six receptions for 107 yards and two touchdowns. "But mistakes just killed us."
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645.