One of the biggest keys to the success of the South Carolina football team in 2010 has been the play of quarterback Stephen Garcia. Garcia doesn't have the eye-popping stats that Arkansas' Ryan Mallett or Kentucky's Mike Hartline has, but he has enjoyed a breakthrough season personally.
"It's gone pretty well," Garcia said of his performance in 2010. "There's a few things I wish would have been different, but we've had our ups and downs and we've also done some good things."
Garcia has completed 205-of-315 (65%) passes for 2,816 yards this season with 20 touchdown passes against 11 interceptions. That doesn't seem like a lot compared to Mallett's league-leading 3,592 yards, but the strides Garcia made over his previous two seasons is staggering.
In limited action in 2008, Garcia completed just 65-of-122 (53%) passes with six touchdowns and eight interceptions. He averaged one interception for every 15 passes thrown. He got the starting nod in a highly anticipated homecoming game for Garcia in the 2009 Outback Bowl in his hometown of Tampa, Florida. The game was a disappointment for the redshirt freshman, as Garcia threw three interceptions and completed just 9-of-18 passes before being pulled from the game in Carolina's 31-10 loss to Iowa.
In 2009, Garcia took nearly every meaningful snap in the season and put up similar numbers to the 2010 season. He threw for 2,862 yards and 17 touchdowns with 10 interceptions, but attempted 117 more passes and only had a 55% completion percentage. In the embarrassing 20-7 loss to UConn in the PapaJohns.com Bowl, Garcia completed just 16-of-38 passes for 129 yards and an interception.
Garcia credits the growth as a quarterback from his first season to the 2010 season to maturity and quarterback coach G.A. Mangus.
"Probably the preparation for games," Garcia said of his improvements. "Last year and the year before that I just tried to go into the games and do what I did in high school and obviously it didn't work too well. Coach Mangus coming in here really helped a lot and this year I've really watched a lot of tape on my own and one-on-one with him (Mangus) and just learned a lot about the defense I was facing."
That was never more evident than in three of the biggest Carolina wins, getting the ball to his two biggest playmakers.
In the 17-6 win over Georgia in the SEC opener, Garcia wasn't asked to do much but he was effective when asked to do something with the ball. He threw just 17 passes, but completed 12 of them for 165 yards. Seven of those completions was to Alshon Jeffery, who finished with 103 yards. Garcia's main purpose was to give the ball to running back Marcus Lattimore and let him go. Lattimore carried it 37 times for 182 yards and both Gamecock touchdowns.
A month later, Garcia did more of the same in the shocking 35-21 victory over #1 Alabama. Garcia completed 17-of-20 passes for 201 yards and three touchdowns with a fluke interception off a deflected pass. He again got the ball into the hands of his playmakers with Jeffery catching seven passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns, and handed the ball to Lattimore 23 times for 93 yards and two more touchdowns in the win.
In the SEC East-clinching 36-14 win over the Florida Gators, Garcia completed 15-of-22 passes for 156 yards and put the game away with his legs, running eight yards and through a Gator defender for a touchdown that gave the Gamecocks a commanding 29-7 lead early in the fourth quarter.
Now Garcia will be trying to do something he hasn't done since becoming quarterback for the Gamecocks - win a bowl game.
"I think we definitely have something to prove," Garcia said. "We've just got to play a lot better than we did the last two (bowl) games. Last year and the year before that I didn't really perform too well in the bowl games and the team in general didn't perform well."
Along with getting that first bowl victory in his Gamecock career, Garcia will be trying to lead Carolina to only their second 10-win season in program history.
"There's only been one year where they've won 10 games here," Garcia said. "To win 10 games with the schedule we had this year would be huge for us and a big stepping stone for next year."
Garcia says he's on a completely different level now than he was when he made his bowl debut two years ago.
"I felt like I was still in high school back then to be completely honest," Garcia said. "Just as far as my maturity level and knowledge of the game has increased 500% I'd say."
Gamecock fans have enjoyed watching Garcia mature right in front of their eyes this season. If Garcia is able to lead his team to a victory over Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, who knows what the 2011 season has in store for Garcia and the Gamecocks.
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