CLEMSON, S.C. - As fans of both schools struggled to digest the unlikely series of events that had just unfolded, their emotions were as disparate as the colors of the teams they follow.
Delirious Clemson faithful dispersed from Death Valley into the cold, rainy Saturday night, partying as if it were 1999 again. Receiver Rod Gardner came down with a 50-yard desperation heave by Woody Dantzler minutes earlier, then Aaron Hunt kicked a 25-yard field goal with three seconds left to convert despair into destiny and a 16-14 triumph by the Tigers.
It felt a lot like 1999 to South Carolina, too, but again there was little to celebrate. For all they achieved - seven wins and bowl eligibility after last year's 0-11 death march - the Gamecocks walked away from another season burdened by the gloom of another losing streak - three - and the fourth consecutive loss at the paws of their nemesis.
"It's tough to lose three in a row, but you find out who you are," said cornerback Andre Goodman, the defender closest to Gardner on the fateful fling.
Goodman and the Gamecocks (7-4) will wait until after the SEC Championship on Dec. 2 game to learn whether they'll go to the Outback, Peach or Music City bowls. But wherever the destination, Goodman declared, South Carolina needs to attain closure quickly and move on.
"We come back, and we're in a bowl," he said. "Nobody expected us to be in a bowl. Wish we could have done better, but we can only play the next game."
If there is a persistent theme to the second year of Lou Holtz's coaching tenure at South Carolina, it is to anticipate the unexpected. The Gamecocks pulled off a stunning upset of then-No. 9 Georgia in Game 2; they were one nudge from collapse at Kentucky before closing ranks to win, 20-17; they were in control against Tennessee on Oct. 28 before the Volunteers rallied and scored the winning touchdown with 26 seconds left; and they amassed an unthinkable 21-3 lead at Florida before the Gators reeled off 38 straight points and coasted, 41-21.
The certified jewel of 2000 was unearthed in the fourth game against Mississippi State, when walk-on quarterback Erik Kimrey lofted a fourth-and-10 prayer down the left sideline that was answered by Jermale Kelly for a 25-yard touchdown and, ultimately, a 23-19 triumph.
Few in garnet and black reflected on that glorious September day in the aftermath of Saturday's shattering defeat, but fatalists among them would assert that Gardner's catch and Hunt's kick were just the inevitable culmination of the good breaks and bad balancing themselves out in the end; the Gamecocks were lucky against the Bulldogs and decidedly unlucky against the Tigers, so perhaps now all is even.
Keith Adams endorses the philosophy. It was just three weeks earlier, after all, when Clemson's junior linebacker watched his team bag the go-ahead score against Georgia Tech on an 18-yard reception by Gardner with 1:52 left.
The Yellow Jackets staged a frantic drive in the last minute - sound familiar? - and won when Kerry Watkins made a one-handed catch in the back of the end zone with seven seconds left to dash the Tigers' championship dreams.
"You play this game long enough, and you realize things go your way sometimes and sometimes they don't," said Adams, whose Tigers will play in the Gator Bowl for their second straight postseason appearance. "This victory makes up for all that."
The Gamecocks weren't willing to concede that the unlikely turn of events was in any way preordained. But if fate indeed played a part, it had a wicked sense of timing.
"We lost to two top-20 football teams in the last 20 seconds," Holtz said. "Now, if we played some people on the schedule, I don't think we'd be sitting here talking about that. But you play the caliber of schedule we play in the SEC, this happens."
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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