The Week 2 Georgia loss, while a stinging disappointment, could be understood, though South Carolina had the ingredients to pull off the upset.

Losing a fifth straight game to Kentucky, however, is inexcusable, even against a Wildcats team that improved to 5-0 and has a Heisman Trophy hopeful at running back. South Carolina fell to 2-2 and 1-2 in the SEC on Saturday, with Missouri up next.

In continuing a trend that began with the buildup to the Georgia game, South Carolina wilted in the face of a big-game atmosphere as the Gamecocks spent more time trash talking, pushing and shoving, mostly after the whistle, instead of playing with composure in prime time. South Carolina has lost every time it has behaved like that in recent memory, and penalties typically mount early. On Saturday, the Gamecocks had 11 for 96 yards.

After the game, coach Will Muschamp said there wasn’t any correlation between big games and slow starts, but he admitted the Gamecocks had several dropped passes, and he even lost count if there were six or seven.

“Can’t catch it for them,” Muschamp said, according to The Big Spur. “They’re on scholarship. Got to catch the ball.”

Quarterback Jake Bentley, the second most experienced signal caller in the SEC East, missed myriad chances. Sure, there were drops by wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Bryan Edwards, but Bentley also missed targets by several yards in the first half alone.

Credit: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps a microcosm of South Carolina’s struggles came on its final drive: The Gamecocks converted a fourth and 10 and a third and 18 and ultimately went 20 plays across 71 yards and took 7:41 off the clock, but it ended with an interception as Bentley threw into double coverage trying to connect with Samuel.

For perspective, that was Bentley’s sixth interception this season, which is the most in the SEC and already half of what he threw last season. For a quarterback who has passed for more than 5,000 yards in his career (now 5,142) and has several veteran receivers, Bentley left much to be desired. His knee injury was not initially reported as serious as Muschamp said in the postgame that Bentley didn’t hear a “pop.”

Add it all up, and South Carolina seemed to do more damage to itself than Kentucky did. Or it simply didn’t do its job.

“We self-inflicted a lot of issues for ourselves, but credit Kentucky,” Muschamp said. “Do your job. We’ve got guys jumping out of gaps, trying to make plays. It’s not a lack of effort, not a lack of want to, but not very smart. It’s discipline and doing what you’re supposed to do and how you’re supposed to do it.”

Another concern was the running game, which features an offensive line that has eclipsed 100 collective starts but still couldn’t settle on a featured back. Rico Dowdle mustered 13 carries for 44 yards, and Bentley was second on the team with just 8 carries for 37 yards.

Dowdle, expected to fill that featured back role, has been at the heart of several key plays in the last three games. He was the target of a pass that Georgia intercepted and returned for a touchdown. He had a fumble on the goal line against Vanderbilt. And against Kentucky, he fumbled inside his own 10-yard line that later set up a UK field goal.

The Gamecocks began September with loads of optimism coming off the Coastal Carolina win and looking to spring an upset of Georgia as a dark-horse contender to win the SEC East. Now they close the month with a second loss in the division and are likely looking at a finish of no better than third.

The progress that had been preached in the summer is now looking like fool’s gold, and whispers of Muschamp’s third-season struggles as a head coach, first at Florida (where he went 4-8 in Year 3) and now in Columbia, will only grow louder.

They’re on a trajectory now where, save for Tennessee and Chattanooga, it looks like wins down the stretch will be especially scarce.