As South Carolina State Police and Columbia PD officers took positions Saturday, South Carolina students chanted, “You can’t stop us.”
Students tested that theory and found South Carolina’s finest, male and female, to be excellent tacklers — better than Alabama’s defense on this day.
Then came Greg McElroy, the Alabama quarterback who had just lost for the first time since middle school, making his way to the team’s tunnel and back to the locker room. He gave a thumbs-up gesture to South Carolina students, who then pelted him with the white towels.
They had waved those towels throughout South Carolina‘s biggest victory in years, but who needs a souvenir when one can throw it at the opposing quarterback?
Indeed, it was quite a scene after Alabama’s 35-21 loss to South Carolina on Saturday in Williams-Brice Stadium.
It was also quite a feeling for McElroy and the Tide, who had just lost for the first time since the 2009 Sugar Bowl and suffered their first regular-season loss since the 2007 Iron Bowl.
The scene and feeling were so overwhelming that McElroy said something in the locker room.
“I talked to the team after Coach (Nick) Saban, and I said , ‘Hey, if you’re not committed to this team right now, you’d better find a way to get committed,’” McElroy said. “Quite frankly, some of these guys have never experienced a loss, and it’s something I don’t ever want to feel again.”
Alabama’s streaks of 19 victories overall and 29 regular-season victories have ended. The Crimson Tide must assess the poor performance and coaching failures that maximized a strong showing by No. 19 South Carolina.
Then Alabama must minimize the damage.
“We can still accomplish everything we want to accomplish,” McElroy said.
A one-loss Alabama team can still win the SEC West Division, repeat as SEC champions and get a shot to defend its national title. More outings like Saturday, though, and this won’t be a one-loss Alabama team.
Great teams have bad days, but their worst days shouldn’t look like this.
The defense, which came into Saturday’s game ranked No. 1 nationally in points allowed per game, missed tackles all day. The secondary gave up big plays, including three Stephen Garcia touchdown passes.
Gone were the red-zone turnovers that Alabama’s defense came up with throughout the season’s first five games.
Alabama’s offense gave up seven sacks, seemingly never adjusting as South Carolina linebackers and defensive backs hovered then came on delayed blitzes.
The Tide managed 36 net rushing yards.
On special teams, a bad snap caused Jeremy Shelley to push a field goal wide right, and he missed an extra point.
Most notably — and for the first time in recent memory — Alabama was not the most physical team. South Carolina came out hitting and attacking for a 21-3 lead, the second-largest deficit faced by a Saban-era Alabama team, and the Tide took too long to punch back.
As for coaching, Saban copped to an iffy call in going for a fake field goal with a chance to cut the lead to 28-24. Then again, the would-be, 42-yard field goal try would have pushed Shelley’s range, and Alabama already had misadventures in the kicking game.
Too, the Tide’s defense had done little to inspire confidence.
The biggest coaching failure was that Saban and staff clearly came up short on message this past week. They failed to get a team that met his “standard” in rallying against Arkansas and routing Florida the previous two weeks to meet the standard at any point against South Carolina.
Add that South Carolina finally played like a team ready to challenge in the SEC East, and Alabama’s bad day looked worse than a bad day for a team with Alabama’s talent should.
It wasn’t a closer-than-expected victory.
It wasn’t a close loss.
It was the 2009 Sugar Bowl loss to Utah all over again, just minus off-field distractions or any good reason for Alabama to play so poorly.
Then came a scene similar to Utah’s celebration in the Superdome, only the team celebrating this time could face Alabama again with an SEC title on the line.
Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com or 256-235-3576. Follow on Twitter @Jomedstar.