Corbett: The game within the game
Can USC beat Mississippi State Saturday using a "new" starting quarterback? Coach Steve Spurrier says yes, and he has a history of doing it, even winning an SEC title or two with multiple quarterbacks. How about USC using two quarterbacks in the game to combine to beat Mississippi State? Erik Kimrey and many Gamecock football fans can answer that question. Just remember "the fade."
The Gamecocks are set to start redshirt freshman Chris Smelley at quarterback against the 3-1 Bulldogs, In part, according to Head Coach Steve Spurrier, because of Smelley's quicker release. Fifth year senior Blake Mitchell has been sacked more often this season, and Smelley's relief performance against LSU last Saturday (12-26 for 174 yards with 1 TD and 1 INT) was better than Mitchell's starting output (7-16 for 70 yards and 1 INT).
Saturday's contest looks like a game within the game to decide the winner: USC's offense vs. Mississippi State's defense. Within that game, the key match-up might be USC's quarterback – starting with Smelley – against MSU's defensive backs. USC fans hope Smelley gets off to a quicker start than the Bulldogs' secondary.
Each of the last three Saturdays, MSU's opponents' opening drive has ended in a pick-six by a State defender, a fact pointed out by Coach Spurrier to the media Tuesday. Safeties Derek Pegues (20 yds –Auburn) and De'Mon Glanton (60 yds – Gardner Webb) have two of the scores, and linebacker Gabe O'Neal (47 yds-Tulane) has the other interception returned for a touchdown. State has five picks in four games, and after a 45-0 shellacking by LSU at home to open the season, MSU has won three straight, including two on the road, and given up 17 points or less since the Bayou Bengals' rout.
Playing two quarterbacks in one season does not bother Spurrier, who points out, "Last time I won a conference championship (2000), I played two quarterbacks." Spurrier not only has replaced quarterbacks in mid-game, in the past he would often send them in and out like a basketball coach replacing a player who suffered a defensive lapse. Spurrier even alternated quarterbacks almost every play in one memorable Florida win.
What about changing starting quarterbacks from week four to week five? "It doesn't bother me a bit. We are looking to put the best players out there," said Spurrier.
Using second string quarterback Erik Kimrey for just one play helped USC beat Mississippi State 23-19 in 2000. But Spurrier may not have been thinking about Kimrey throwing the most famous "fade" in USC football history when he said USC is "still searching to see if one guy can play better than the rest."
In 2000, starter Phil Petty was shaken up on a third down play, and Kimrey announced to then-Coach Lou Holtz and staff one of the most famous lines in Gamecock football history: "Coach, I can throw the fade." He did, a 25 yard touchdown strike on fourth down to Jermale Kelly to win the game. It was Kimrey's only touchdown toss of the season.
Right now the better quarterback, in the coach's eyes, is Smelley, who has a higher QB efficiency rating than Mitchell (119.25 vs. 111.39), averages more yards per game (137.5-130.3), but has a lower completion percentage (55% vs. 60%) than Mitchell. Smelley also has just 116 yards less in the air than Mitchell this season (275 vs. 391), while throwing only two-thirds the passes and completing only half as many (22-40 vs. 41-68). The big red flag going into Saturday's contest may be the interceptions; 4 Mitchell passes have been picked off, and 2 Smelly tosses have been intercepted. Just for argument's sake, consider that backup Tommy Beecher has the best QB rating (136.36) and completion percentage (63.6%) with one INT and 1 TD. Will Beecher get a shot if things go poorly in the passing game? Stay tuned.
Wins over Gardner Webb and Tulane by State were expected, but the 19-14 upset of Auburn was not. The Tigers outgained MSU by 110 yards, but the winning touchdown, and only score of the second half, came after one of three Bulldog interceptions on the night. Against this secondary steps up Smelley, the quarterback that Coach Spurrier hopes "learned a lesson" when he got clobbered throwing a pass against Louisiana-Lafayette in the opener after failing to audible when he saw ULL was bringing a blitz. The blow caused Smelley to sit out the next two weeks with a shoulder injury.
Mississippi State is second in the SEC with 9 quarterback sacks, led by defensive end Titus Brown and his four sacks in four games. Run tailback Cory Boyd (68 yards per game) inside and tailback Mike Davis (65 yards per game) outside? Each had over 100 yards against S.C. State in USC's week three win. MSU has not allowed a 100 yard rusher in 10 games, since the West Virginia game in 2006. That includes games versus Heisman hopeful Darren McFadden and teammate Felix Jones of Arkansas, Kenneth Darby of Alabama and Georgia's Kregg Lumpkin.
With MSU featuring a tough run defense and a porous Carolina run defense on the other side - now without ALL-SEC linebacker Jasper Brinkley - fans, players and coaches might find out early in the game how much the Carolina offense has to rely on Smelley and the throwing game - or his replacement.
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