COLUMBIA, S.C. — With the clock ticking close to the final six minutes and trailing South Carolina by five points, Florida lined up on a first down at the South Carolina 44, primed for a drive that could put it ahead.
Then quarterback John Brantley called an audible.
Brantley went to the right. Running back and fellow senior Chris Rainey went to the left. Brantley lost 6 yards. The Gators lost the momentum and, ultimately, the game.
"It was just some miscommunication," Brantley said. "It was originally run to the left, and I changed it to run to the right."
This is the Gators' season in a nutshell — heading one way when it should be the other. Close but not good enough.
Florida's 17-12 loss to No. 15 South Carolina in front of 80,250 at Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday afternoon was another example during a season filled with mistakes, untimely penalties, lost opportunities and late-game letdowns.
It was Florida's fifth loss in its past six games. And it leaves the Gators (5-5, 3-5 SEC) still one game shy of becoming bowl eligible. It is the first time Florida has finished with a losing record in SEC play since 1986 — before the conference went to division play in 1992.
Three of Florida's past four losses have been by 11 points or fewer, and two came down to late drives.
"We had three ball games where we had our opportunities," said Florida coach Will Muschamp, whose team lost two fumbles. "It comes back to turnovers, critical errors. It's when you've got to make a play on the ball or down the field, a situation where it's a field goal game, and we've got to execute in those situations.
"And that comes back on me. We've got to do a better job coaching; better job in those critical downs and those critical situations. Four of our last games, three have come down to the last drive of the game. And we've got to win in those situations."
Saturday's game was another reminder of how this team often looks as if it has no idea what's going on — or who it's supposed to be. And a team that ultimately can't seem to find its way.
Florida made it inside the Gamecocks 5 three times but twice had to settle for field goals by Caleb Sturgis. One drive was hampered by a false start penalty on the 5.
Backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett scored the Gators' only touchdown, a 2-yard run with 11:23 remaining in the game to pull within 14-12. (Brissett was intercepted on the two-point conversion.)
"Very frustrating," Brantley said about the Gators' red zone issues. "You want to be able to finish the game strong, and it starts with finishing drives. You get down there. We get points, and that's great. But you want to be able to punch it in."
The Gators gained just 84 first-half yards and 261 for the game. The defense struggled against the run: South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw gained 71 yards on 11 carries in the first half (16 for 88 for the game), many on scrambles. The Gators defense was on the field for 32:04 and allowed 215 rushing yards (compared with just 84 passing).
"We gave Connor a game ball for running it," said coach Steve Spurrier, who led the Gamecocks to an undefeated SEC East record for the first time in school history.
Florida had an opportunity to get the ball back with just more than four minutes remaining. But the Gators were penalized for offside as the Gamecocks (8-2, 6-2) faced third and 2 at their 28. South Carolina then held possession until 42 seconds remained.
"Like I've said all year, in the SEC you've got to score in the red zone," Rainey said. "You can't turn the ball over, and certain penalties will kill you, especially in the red zone."
"We're the same as everybody else (talent-wise). It's just penalties, turnovers and all that stuff keeps killing us all the time. And we've got to finish strong."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]