Mitchell's Return Sparked Late Season Surge
Mitchell started the season with high expectations, but after a sluggish start, compounded by poor offensive line play, Mitchell was benched in favor of the more athletic Syvelle Newton following the Gamecocks 18-0 shutout loss to Georgia. Three days later, Mitchell was involved in a much publicized altercation at a club in downtown Columbia, and he was suspended for the Gamecocks home contest against Wofford on September 16.
As a result, Mitchell became an easy target for USC fans to let loose their early season frustrations. Many believed that Mitchell had seen his last snap at USC and would inevitably transfer out. However, while Syvelle Newton grew week by week in his role at quarterback, and Mitchell became more and more of an afterthought to the USC faithful, the LaGrange, Georgia native stayed the course, maintaining focus in practice and displaying leadership on the sidelines.
Mitchell's opportunity finally came in the second half against Arkansas when he was inserted to try and jump start the stagnant Gamecock offense. Trailing 26-6 early in the third quarter, Mitchell orchestrated a memorable comeback, as he completed 15-21 passes for 213 yards and two touchdowns to draw USC within six points early in the fourth quarter. However, on what could have been the game winning drive, Mitchell's storybook night ended when he threw an interception into zone coverage with just over five minutes remaining in the game. The Razorbacks were able to run out the clock and escape Columbia with a victory, but Mitchell's second half performance, along with improved pass protection from the offensive line, was enough for Spurrier to name him the starting quarterback for the following week's showdown with Florida.
Although USC lost a heartbreaking 17-16 contest to the eventual SEC Champion Gators, Mitchell displayed poise and confidence in leading the Gamecocks to 410 yards of total offense against the previously dominant Florida defense. That performance solidified Mitchell's starting spot for the remainder of the season, and the Gamecocks appeared to be a different team from that point on.
It's only fitting that Mitchell finished the season as a winner, leading the Gamecocks to three consecutive victories to close the year, including a memorable road triumph over arch-rival Clemson and a Liberty Bowl victory over Houston. Following Mitchell's four touchdown effort in the bowl game, for which he was named the Most Valuable Player, Coach Steve Spurrier praised his quarterback for coming back strong in the second half of the season.
"Blake came on strong the last half of the year," said Spurrier. "Obviously, we think he can play better next year. What he's done well is take care of the ball. He's keeping two hands on it and not letting them smack it out. That happened a few times last year. Blake is a beautiful passer. When he gets a little time and knows what he's doing, and we get guys open, (he) should play well."
Blake Mitchell is surrounded by reporters after leading USC to a 44-36 victory over Houston in the Liberty Bowl.
Spurrier, who has never been shy in his approach of rotating quarterbacks, believes that the time on the sidelines helped Mitchell grow both on and off the field.
"I think maybe just watching from the sideline a little bit helped him. Sometimes that helps quarterbacks. Watching them over the years, as all you know, I'm not opposed to putting them on the bench for a while when they are going bad. Usually they always come back," said Spurrier. "I was looking at my last SEC championship ball, we (Florida) beat Auburn 28-6, and I think Rex Grossman was the Most Valuable Player of that game. He got benched twice that season. We put Jesse Palmer in after Rex got off to a bad start against South Carolina. Jesse finished that one out and also the Georgia game. I said, ‘You need to come over and stand with me for a while.' Now the next year, Rex was really good, and he didn't get benched. It seems to help some a bit when they do that."
All-SEC wide receiver Sidney Rice, who saw his numbers increase dramatically when Mitchell returned to the lineup, said Mitchell was a completely different person in the second half of the season.
"It seemed like during the couple of games that he sat out something grew inside of him. He came out with the biggest heart I've seen all year. He didn't let too much stuff get him down, and you could also tell that he wanted to play. He wanted to make a difference on this ball team, and I think that's what he did," said Rice. "He doesn‘t talk too much. He just shows us with his actions on the field. He does a tremendous job, and you‘ve got to give him credit."
Now, with a veteran Mitchell returning, along with an assortment of quality skill players, Spurrier believes that his team is capable of competing for an SEC Championship next season.
"(Next year) we‘re shooting to try and win the SEC. We think we've got enough players to compete if we play smart," said Spurrier. "We've got Blake (Mitchell) coming back and just about the entire offense. We've got to replace three offensive linemen, but hopefully we can do that."
- In the four and a half games that Mitchell played in after reclaiming the quarterback duties, he completed over 69% of his passes for 1,467 yards, 10 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions.
- Mitchell completed 66.8% of his passes on the season, which ranks as the second best single season mark in school history.
- He ranks seventh on the USC's all-time career passing yardage list, with a total of 4,245 yards in his first three seasons. If Mitchell throws for more than 1,436 yard in his senior season, then he will move up to third place on the list. Todd Ellis (9,953 career yards) and Steve Taneyhill (8,782 career yards) claim the top two spots.
- Mitchell led the Gamecock offense to over 400 yards of total offense in each of USC's final four games.
- Mitchell, who did not start a game until the 2005 season, claims an 11-6 record as South Carolina's starting quarterback.
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