COLUMBIA -- They didn't graze one of his finger tips or sail inches beyond his grasp.
These were two sure interceptions tossed into the hands of a sure-handed cornerback, and that precisely explains the bafflement after South Carolina's Sheldon Brown dropped them both last week at Florida.
The drops, both of which came in the shadow of his team's goal posts, were costly. The Gators got a field goal and a touchdown after the gaffes that, if reversed, might have shifted momentum in South Carolina's 41-21 loss at The Swamp.
Brown cringes when his mind rewinds those deep balls thrown by Rex Grossman and Jesse Palmer. It was almost too easy.
"On both of my interceptions, I couldn't believe he actually threw the ball," said Brown, who leads the team with four interceptions, two of which helped preserve wins over Georgia and Kentucky. "I had the guy blanketed, and it was just amazing to me. I'm like, `He's still throwing this.' I like it where I'm covering the guy, and when I look the ball is there, and I don't have time to think. But I was thinking and thinking. ... And I blew it."
Brown's breakdowns encapsulated a miserable day for South Carolina's defense, which entered as statistically the best in the SEC but gave up season highs in points (41), total yards (508) and passing yards (356).
Brown and the Gamecocks know that a duplicate dud Saturday against Clemson's potent offense could produce similar results.
"We knew what we were going against, and we didn't step up to the challenge," said Brown, whose defense will try to derail an offense that's averaging 38 points per game. "We've got another test this week. We're going against another good offense, and hopefully we'll come out better."
South Carolina coach Lou Holtz looks back at his team's three dropped interceptions -- strong safety Rashad Faison botched one in the second quarter that likely would have led to a touchdown and given the Gamecocks a 28-3 lead -- as missed chances to stem what evolved into an avalanche of 38 straight points by the Gators.
Another deep pass bounced off Brown's helmet and into the arms of Florida receiver Jabar Gaffney for a 40-yard gain.
"We hadn't had any trouble playing the ball in the air all year until (Saturday)," Holtz said.
There's a good chance the issue has been or will be raised again this week. Gamecocks cornerbacks will set out to stop Rod Gardner, a 6-foot-3, 215-pounder who has made a living at soaring high for deep passes.
South Carolina doesn't need convincing of Gardner's talents. It was just last year when the senior abused the Gamecocks secondary for 138 yards receiving and two touchdowns.
The last score -- a 29-yard dagger that provided the final 31-21 margin -- came on fourth-and-10 with less than seven minutes left and the Gamecocks threatening to snatch the lead.
Cornerback Arturo Freeman was with Gardner step for step but misplayed the ball on its descent down the left sideline.
Brown said there's nothing to read into the emergence of a forgettable trend. Freeman is gone, and Brown and fellow corner Andre Goodman help comprise one of the better secondaries in the SEC; before Florida passed for three touchdowns, the Gamecocks had given up just two scores though the air in 2000.
"We had different corners last year, so it's really nothing," Brown said. "We're not worried about playing the ball in the air. It's just that freak things sometimes don't go your way, and unfortunately it was in the SEC East title game at the worst possible time."
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645.
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