COLUMBIA, S.C. — Eyes glazed with hands on hips, Greg McElroy shook his head at the scoreboard in the distance:
South Carolina 35, Alabama 21.
A few minutes later, he dodged projectiles as he jogged to the locker room with an unfamiliar knot in his gut.
Flashing a quick index finger at his hecklers, McElroy knew his Crimson Tide won’t be No. 1 much longer.
Not after the magic finally ran out on Alabama.
Living dangerously in its second straight SEC road game, the Tide (5-1, 2-1 SEC) couldn’t find the answers as the sun set on a gorgeous fall afternoon and Alabama’s shot at another perfect season.
A rested South Carolina team led almost all game as it avoided the pitfalls and wild momentum swings to become the first opponent to hand Alabama a loss in 19 games overall and 29 in the regular season.
“We have to be able to punch them in the first round,” Tide coach Nick Saban said. “You can’t counterpunch them and think that you’re always going to be able to come back. It caught up with us today. South Carolina beat us. We didn’t lose. They out-executed us. They played better than we played, with more intensity.”
Coming off a bye week preceded by a stinging loss at Auburn, the 19th-ranked Gamecocks (4-1, 2-1) struck early in a scene reminiscent of Alabama’s last two narrow conference escapes at Auburn last year and at Arkansas two weeks ago. Falling behind 21-3 by the opening moments of the second quarter, Alabama made its bid to pull yet another Houdini.
Climbing back to within a touchdown, all was in place for a patented escape when the script went out the window. Following an interception by Will Lowery deep in South Carolina territory, the Tide reached the Gamecocks’ 18.
A busted play and a sack later, Alabama lined up for what would have been a 43-yard field goal, but a failed attempt at a fake ended with holder AJ McCarron’s pass bouncing off linebacker Ed Stinson’s hands.
It was all downhill from there for the Tide.
Gamecocks receiver Alshon Jeffery, who Saban praised all week, hauled in the last of his masterful seven catches in a pass well-defended by Dre Kirkpatrick. The 42-yard play set up Marcus Lattimore’s third touchdown of the day with 7:01 to play.
“We probably didn’t make a good call on the fake,” Saban said. “That was right on the edge of (Jeremy) Shelley’s range. It gave them the momentum of the game back.”
For a game that featured just one lead change, there were several wild emotional swings.
Turnovers and botched special-teams plays were a factor, but none was big enough to shovel Alabama out of the 18-point hole it dug just 15 minutes into the game.
“I think that this was meant to be,” said South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, who is now second on the SEC wins list behind Bear Bryant (107 to 159). “I used a line this week that I’ve never used in my life, but since our basketball team had beat the No. 1 (team) and our baseball team had done it, I said. ‘Fellas, if fate means for us to win this game Saturday, then let’s give it a chance.’”
Late in the second quarter, it was more than a possibility. The hosts were actually on the verge of blowing it wide open when Alabama suddenly reverted to some if its red-zone issues of last season.
Controlling the time of possession and outgaining South Carolina 178-159 at the half, having a 15-play, 53-yard drive end without points summed up the day.
When Shelley’s field goal attempt sailed wide of the uprights, the Tide blew the first of two red-zone opportunities.
On the other side of the ball, the red-zone defense that stopped No. 7 Florida a week earlier also lost its footing. Entering with a league-best 57.1 percent scoring allowance inside the 20, Alabama surrendered touchdowns on all four of the Gamecocks’ visits to the red zone.
On third downs, it was even worse.
Also tops in the SEC when it came to stopping the opposition on third, Alabama allowed six conversions in 11 tries.
None stung more than the three yielded on a 15-play, 82-yard drive that South Carolina used to wrestle momentum away after giving back five points to open the second half.
Saban later said those conversions of 9, 10 and 10 yards respectively “changed the game.”
Lattimore’s 1-yard touchdown put the deficit back at 14, but Alabama’s best shot was still to come.
Darius Hanks’ 51-yard touchdown reception on the first play of the fourth quarter cut the lead to 28-21.
Three plays later, Lowery’s interception set the events in motion for the failed fake and Jeffery’s final act.
As the SEC’s leading receiver and with a 6-foot-4 frame, Jeffery used every bit of his height as an advantage against the Tide. Twice he scored touchdowns on passes thrown just high enough to avoid the coverage. He finished with 127 yards on seven catches from his once-embattled quarterback who won back the state, for now at least.
Stephen Garcia completed his first nine passes and finished the day with 17 completions on 20 attempts for 201 yards and three touchdowns.
His escape from a host of almost-tacklers in the backfield on a fourth-down play in the first quarter set up a touchdown pass to Jeffery on the following play.
The broken tackle was one of many breakdowns in fundamentals with which Alabama burdened itself Saturday.
As a result, its shot at perfection is kaput and egos were bruised.
Still, hopes of a return to the SEC title game are not dead. A rematch with the Gamecocks is still possible should both win out.
But the events of early Saturday evening knocked some of the luster off Alabama’s shine.
“I’m a leader on this team,” McElroy said afterward with the same blank stare. “I’m as disappointed as anybody, but I see what this team is capable of. This team is capable of amazing, amazing things. We can still do everything that we want to do. Quite frankly, we have to commit ourselves. Everybody. Each individual, every coach, every member of the administration has to commit themselves to this team and believe in this team. We are a great team.”