On a night when almost nothing went South Florida's way, special teams mistakes were among the most frustrating because the Bulls continued to cause themselves trouble.
Consider the opening kickoff of the second half, when coach Jim Leavitt had hoped to chip into a 14-point deficit. Bruce Gipson broke left for a promising return only to have multiple flags thrown behind him for blocks in the back. He continued to juke defenders and make moves until he fumbled the ball, which South Carolina's Marc Williams recovered on the 38-yard line.
Three penalties were called against USF on the play, all declined, and South Carolina converted the mistake into a field goal and a 20-3 lead. In two games, Gipson has lost two fumbles on returns, and he also muffed a punt in the first quarter Saturday, recovering the loose ball himself.
"That was a horrible way to start the third quarter. Obviously, we can't fumble the ball," Leavitt said. "We've got to make changes there. We'll definitely do that."
Special teams were a problem from South Carolina's opening drive, when USF forced a three-and-out. The Bulls had a jailbreak punt-block opportunity, with five players breaking toward Joey Bowers. He got the punt off, however, and cornerback Mike Jenkins was flagged for roughing the kicker. South Carolina scored on a 56-yard touchdown on the next play.
J.B. Garris tripped fielding the ensuing kickoff, giving USF its first start on its 7. On the play where Gipson muffed the punt, Trae Williams earned a personal foul penalty for knocking down a Gamecocks player.
The last problem of the quarter came when Santiago Gramatica attempted a 43-yard field goal, which he missed wide left. Gramatica did recover, nailing a career-long 47-yard field goal as the first half expired. His long was a 45-yarder, and Saturday's kick is the third longest in USF history, behind two by his brother, Bill.
BAD START: Williams got his first career start at cornerback, and South Carolina didn't take long to test him. On the opening drive, a roughing the kicker penalty on a punt gave South Carolina first down on its 44. Troy Williamson, the Southeastern Conference's leading receiver, got behind Williams, and quarterback Syvelle Newton found him for a 56-yard touchdown. Williams, who lined up on kickoff returns last week, was replaced there by Gipson, and Jenkins replaced him at cornerback on South Carolina's next possession. The two platooned the rest of the game.
BIG KICKS: Punter Brandon Baker, a walk-on who earned a scholarship before the season, came up huge with a 60-yard punt in the first quarter, and after a clipping penalty was called on South Carolina, the play netted 73 yards. South Carolina totaled minus-2 yards on three first-half punt returns, and Baker finished with a 44.4-yard average on eight punts.
INJURY UPDATE: Starting strong safety Johnnie Jones missed the final three quarters after sustaining a stinger on a tackle. Jones sustained gunshot wounds to his shoulder and back in December but said Saturday's injury was unrelated. Jones said he did not know if he would be able to return for Saturday's game at TCU.
_ GREG AUMAN, Times staff writer