CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. - A bad week got worse for South Carolina.
Schizophrenic special-teams play and seven turnovers were a crushing combination for the Gamecocks, as Virginia surged to a 34-21 victory on Saturday night in front of 60,171 fans at Scott Stadium.
South Carolina (1-1) entered the game with the nation's No. 22 ranking and was listed as a four-point favorite against the winless Cavaliers. But hoping for a boost heading into Saturday's SEC opener against Georgia, the Gamecocks encountered only more headaches after a trying week that included reports of NCAA inquiries.
"We're a pretty shattered football team right now," Gamecocks coach Lou Holtz said.
South Carolina quarterback Corey Jenkins was responsible for four of the turnovers: three lost fumbles and an interception. Three of his turnovers came deep in Virginia territory, twice thwarting fourth-quarter scoring opportunities. He also fumbled twice on one play, setting up Virginia for a one-play, 20-yard scoring strike from one tight end to another to make it 34-21 with 1:53 remaining in the third quarter.
"To my teammates and fans, I'm going to take the blame for this one," said Jenkins, who rushed for 94 yards and threw for another 119. "Tonight I learned a lot about being a starting quarterback on the road. Instead of letting things happen, I tried to make too many plays. It only takes a split second to make a bad decision, and I made four bad decisions."
Said Holtz: "I've had teams that didn't lose this many turnovers all season. (Jenkins) is trying to make plays. He's got to learn sometimes we don't need the great play and just eliminate the bad ones."
South Carolina also committed two fumbles on kickoff returns, one yielding a touchdown return and the other costing the Gamecocks the services of receiver James Adkisson. The team said Adkisson sprained his left knee and will undergo an MRI in Columbia to determine the extent of the damage. Holtz said it appears Adkisson will miss significant playing time.
As devastating as the turnovers was South Carolina's inability to exploit a Virginia rushing defense that has allowed an average of 292 yards on the ground in losses to Colorado State and Florida State. South Carolina got only 143 rushing yards and was just the fifth team in two seasons not to have a 100-yard rusher against Virginia.
"We're a running team, and they came out to stop the run," said Jenkins, whose Gamecocks had only 262 total yards to Virginia's 339.
Virginia trailed 21-20 at halftime, but South Carolina did little to protect its advantage after fumbling away the second-half kickoff.
The Cavaliers failed to take advantage of that gaffe, with Bryan Smith missing a 36-yard field-goal try.
Two other South Carolina miscues proved decisive. One came oddly at the end of a long Virginia drive, when Langston Moore intercepted Virginia quarterback Matt Schaub only to fumble the ball back to him at the Gamecock 8. Three plays later, Schaub hit tight end Kase Luzar for the go-head touchdown and a 26-21 lead.
After Jenkins fumbled the ball away again later in the third, Virginia responded quickly. Tight end Heath Miller caught a lateral pass and relayed it up field with a perfect toss to fellow tight end Patrick Estes. The two-point conversion play set the final margin.
Considering all the defensive worries for both teams, many expected a shootout between the Gamecocks and the Cavs. They way it developed in the first half, however, was unexpected.
Capitalizing on critical Virginia penalties that kept South Carolina drives alive after failed third-down plays, the Gamecocks took a 14-7 lead in the second quarter on Ryan Brewer's 1-yard run.
Virginia responded quickly, needing just four plays and a dubious pass interference penalty to tie the game on Billy McMullen's 35-yard touchdown reception from Schaub with 7:24 left in the half.
That play proved to be the first of three consecutive touchdown plays in a 31-second span.
On the ensuing kickoff, Brewer was drilled by Alex Seals, whose helmet popped the ball loose. Virginia's Jermaine Hardy scooped up the loose ball and returned it 15 yards for a touchdown. The point-after attempt was blocked.
Not to be outdone, South Carolina sophomore Matthew Thomas took the next kickoff and sliced through the Cavalier coverage untouched for a 95-yard touchdown return - the first by South Carolina since Boo Williams went 90 yards against Florida in 1997. Daniel Weaver's kick put the Gamecocks back on top 21-20 despite yielding 13 points in as many seconds.
Virginia scored on the game's opening possession, driving 76 yards on 13 plays capped by Schaub's 1-yard pass to freshman tight end Heath Miller.
Set up by Brewer's 48-yard kickoff return, South Carolina answered with a nine-play scoring drive to tie the game on Corey Jenkins' 10-yard pass to Thomas.
"The game had absolutely everything," said Virginia coach Al Groh. "It was pretty wild. It's a big step forward for our team. We're on our way. We didn't win any championship today, but we beat a really good team."
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or firstname.lastname@example.org.