Stephen Garcia did not have a fantastic night statistically. In fact, if anyone who picks up a stat sheet tomorrow without having watched or listened to the game, they would say that aside from the three touchdowns Garcia accounted for, he was average at best. Garcia connected on just 7-of-15 pass attempts for 110 yards and a touchdown, while rushing for 56 yards and two more scores on the ground.
Those who watched Saturday night's game between #12 South Carolina and East Carolina will tell you that Garcia is the reason the Gamecocks beat ECU 56-17 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. Though head coach Steve Spurrier would not admit it after the game, starting sophomore Connor Shaw was not the right decision. Shaw drove the team 50 yards down the field on the opening possession before turning it over on a Shaw fumble, but the Gamecocks would not get another first down the rest of the quarter and would manage just one yard of offense.
"I said we were going to have a competition and Connor outplayed him," Spurrier said after the game. "I never said he was going to be quarterback for the year, I said he was going to start. This wasn't any big permanent deal. Connor deserved to start - he played better in the scrimmages. All those balls that got tipped tonight he hit them on a dead run in the scrimmages, but tonight he just barely underthrew Alshon and then Jason Barnes maybe could have made a nice catch. I don't second guess myself at all. When you say you're going to do something you're supposed to do it."
"He played better than I did in the scrimmages and camp, and Coach Spurrier made a decision to do that and I was supportive of it," Garcia said. "Me and Connor are friends so we know how to handle it."
To be fair to Shaw, he didn't cause a Marcus Lattimore fumble or a Kenny Miles fumble on a kickoff that led to 10 of the 17 points the Pirates scored before Garcia took over. However, Shaw did have two three and outs on his final two drives, something Garcia did not have the entire game.
Garcia entered the game with the Gamecocks trailing 17-0 in the second quarter and the Carolina half of the stadium in stunned silence. The silence would not last long. After a swing pass to Marcus Lattimore that turned into a 20-yard gain, Garcia ran for five yards. That sounds pretty innocent on paper, but Garcia lowered his head and ran over ECU's Maurice Falls in the process. That ignited the Gamecock sideline and crowd and from there it would be a completely different team.
"He's had a good attitude about it," Spurrier said. "He cleaned up today, shaved his beard, and decided to act like a quarterback. The guys really admired and respected him for cleaning up and getting ready to play."
Two plays later Garcia scampered for a career-long 32 yards for a touchdown to get the Gamecocks on the board.
"Stephen hit some balls here and there and ran nicely on a bunch of runs," Spurrier said. "He gave us a good lift. He led us to a couple of scores. He played well."
From that point on, Carolina would outscore ECU 56-14 until the Pirates added a meaningless touchdown at the end of the game. Twice chants of "Gar-ci-a, Gar-ci-a" echoed from the stands, something which hasn't been heard since the chants of "Lat-ti-more, Lat-ti-more" in last year's Georgia game.
Speaking of Georgia, Spurrier announced after the game that it would be Garcia starting next week as Carolina travels down to Athens to take on the Bulldogs.
Lattimore off to a strong start
For 30 minutes Saturday night, it looked as if Lattimore's bid for a Heisman trophy could have ended before it even started. Though Lattimore had a touchdown in the first half, he rushed for only 40 yards on 10 carries and had his second career fumble.
"Him running with the ball and fumbling was so unusual," Spurrier said. "Somebody said ‘Marcus fumbled.' I said ‘dang.'"
"There was still some yards out there I should have gotten," Lattimore said. "I missed a couple of reads so I'll have to go back and watch some film."
As was the case for the rest of the team, it was a tale of two halves for Lattimore. He rushed for 72 yards on 13 carries and scored two more touchdowns to finish with 112 yards rushing on 23 carries and three touchdowns to vault himself right in the thick of things for the Heisman.
"Marcus ran very well after a sluggish start," Spurrier said. "I was thinking all that Heisman crap we might better forget that for a while and get back to running the ball like you can Marcus. He settled down and ran very well the entire second half. We weren't going to forget about him."
"I'm not worried about (the Heisman)," Lattimore said. "It's all about the team right now. In the preseason we can talk all about it, but it's about the team now. We have Georgia coming up and we have to be ready for them."
During the preseason Spurrier put a tremendous amount of pressure on new special teams coach John Butler. Twice Spurrier predicted South Carolina would score on special teams this year. That doesn't seem like a big deal, but when you haven't returned a kickoff or punt for a touchdown since 2003, it's a pretty big deal.
It didn't take long for Spurrier's prediction to come true. Early in the fourth quarter, Ace Sanders received a punt at his own 32. Sanders broke through the initial tacklers, ran right, then cut back left around the ECU 40 and raced all the way across the field before cutting back right to follow his blockers into the endzone.
"It felt real good to get Coach Spurrier's first return since he's been here," Sanders said. "I was just trying to find open lanes and my blockers gave me enough blocks to find the open lane."
It was the first punt return for a touchdown since Chavez Donnings went 73 yards in November of 2003 against Florida in Columbia. The 68 yards also topped Carolina's season total of 65 in 2010.
"He preaches (how long it's been) over and over in the special teams meetings," Sanders said. "He just really wanted to get some points on special teams besides a block (kick) so he wanted us to return one."
Butler's touch was felt all around the special teams in the opener. Bruce Ellington had several nice kick returns before ECU decided to quit kicking it deep, Jay Wooten had three touchbacks and made all eight of his extra point attempts, and the coverage on kicks and punts were great.
"Overall the guys covered well and Bruce Ellington ran it up in there on all the kickoff returns," Spurrier said. "We should be very solid on special teams. That was a heck of a run by Ace. He juked about eight of them as he went down the field."
Is it time for a raise?
Ever since signing with South Carolina on February 14th, his birthday, fans have been waiting to see freshman phenom Jadeveon Clowney in action. It didn't take long as Clowney made his long-awaited debut on Saturday night on the very first defensive play of the game. Clowney was as advertised, all over the field and finished with seven tackles.
"I guess he did okay," Spurrier said. "Their quarterback is hard to get to. We got a little pressure here and there when he held it for a moment."
Clowney nearly scored his first touchdown. With ECU driving down the field Davis was hurried by Clowney, who tipped the ball in the air. As the ball was seemingly coming down into Clowney's hands with nothing but green grass in front of him, Davis batted the ball out of his hands and it fell harmlessly as an incomplete pass.
"I was trying to run without the ball," Clowney said with a laugh. "I thought I was going to get it and take off."
Saturday night the Gamecocks and Pirates combined to score 93 points in Bank of America Stadium. In eight home games in 2010, the Carolina Panthers scored a combined 88 points.
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