Garcia Needs Big Day

South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia has been a key player to the Gamecocks' 9-3 season and SEC Eastern Division championship. Garcia will need to have another great game Saturday for the Gamecocks to defeat the Auburn Tigers in the SEC Championship game.

When the South Carolina Gamecocks take the field inside the Georgia Dome at 4:00 Saturday afternoon, Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery will get most of the air time. If the Gamecocks hope to defeat the Auburn Tigers to win the first SEC Championship in school history and the first conference championship since winning the ACC Championship back in 1969, it will be the guy getting the ball to Lattimore and Jeffery that may play the most important role if the Gamecocks hope to upset the Tigers.

Statistically speaking, Garcia's 2010 season has been very similar to the 2009 season. Garcia threw for 2,862 yards and 17 touchdowns with 10 interceptions, while rushing for 186 yards and four touchdowns. This season Garcia has thrown for 2,646 yards and 18 touchdowns with nine interceptions, while rushing for 190 yards and six touchdowns. The biggest difference is Garcia's decision making and efficiency. The Gamecocks gave up 37 sacks in 2009 and has only given up 25 in 2010. To put those numbers into perspective, Garcia lost 267 yards last season and has only lost 146 this season.

Perhaps more impressive than those numbers is how efficient Garcia has been. Garcia completed 239-of-432 passes in 2009 for a quarterback efficiency of 119.3. In 2010, Garcia has completed 189-of-287 for an efficiency of 157.7. That ranks Garcia third in the SEC behind Auburn's Cameron Newton and Arkansas' Ryan Mallett - who are ranked second and third nationally, respectively - while Garcia comes in at 14th in the country.

"Stephen Garcia in terms of his pass efficiency rating, top two or three in the conference," Auburn head coach Gene Chizik said.

"He's had an excellent year," South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier said. "Stephen has had an excellent year."

Garcia's excellent year almost ended before it got started. Garcia battled through the spring and fall practices with true freshman Connor Shaw before reluctantly being named the starter by Spurrier. Garcia's season got off to a decent start. Through three games, Garcia had completed 41-of-60 passes for 508 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions, while rushing for an additional 62 yards and two touchdowns.

Then came the game that nearly cost Garcia his job. The Gamecocks traveled to Auburn to take on the same team it faces Saturday. For three quarters Garcia was having the game of his Gamecock career. The junior had completed 15-of-20 passes for 235 yards and three touchdowns.

On the first Gamecock play of the fourth quarter, Garcia attempted to run over Auburn linebacker Daren Bates. Garcia lowered his head into Bates - something that had been highly scrutinized by Spurrier - and got his bell rung. Garcia fumbled and it was recovered by Auburn, setting up the go-ahead touchdown pass. Garcia fumbled again on the following possession that set up another Auburn touchdown and ended Garcia's night. Shaw came in to finish the game, leading the Gamecocks down the field twice before throwing interceptions.

With Garcia's career at a crossroads and a bye week to prepare for #1 Alabama, Spurrier made it a point to tell Garcia that he would not play if he didn't learn to take a hit without lowering his head.

"The Auburn game he had a bad habit of ducking his head," Spurrier said. "I mean straight down. And it's a wonder he hadn't been hurt seriously running that way. So we got him to keep his head up and dive in and not take hard hits."

Garcia responded by going 17-of-20 for 201 yards and three touchdowns in the historic 35-21 win over the Tide. Since that performance Garcia has never looked back. Since the Alabama game, Garcia has completed 116-of-188 passes for 1,652 yards and 10 touchdowns.

"Stephen has played really well since the Auburn game," Spurrier said. "But he can run with it. And he runs, not like Cam Newton runs, but he can run with it effectively. And he's throwing the ball away, avoided a bunch of sacks he used to take. He's playing much, much better. Much better. Very seldom do we get mad at Stephen anymore. He's playing much more like we coached him to play."

In South Carolina's 29-7 victory over arch-rival Clemson last week, Garcia injured a shoulder and also injured his throwing hand when he hit it on a helmet. Garcia was seen that injured shoulder in a sling Monday and Tuesday, but it was strictly precautionary.

"I think Stephen is fine," Spurrier said. "He bruised his left shoulder in the Clemson game. Didn't do too much until Wednesday. But Wednesday and Thursday he was throwing it around pretty well, and he should throw it around when we come into the dome here about 4:30 today. He should be fine. He's close to 100 percent."

During the brief media availability of Friday's walk-through in the Georgia Dome, Garcia looked healthy moving around and throwing the ball. He had good mobility and was throwing the ball well. If the Gamecocks hope to hoist the SEC banner after the game, Garcia must have a great game to keep up with the potent Tiger attack.

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