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Embattled Garcia delivers for Gamecocks

October, 9, 2010
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- It was a scene so surreal that you were looking for Hollywood producers lurking around the corner.

There South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier sat in the bowels of Williams-Brice Stadium, his Gamecocks having just ended No. 1-ranked Alabama’s 19-game winning streak with a convincing 35-21 thumping, and the Head Ball Coach was gushing about Stephen Garcia.

[+] EnlargeStephen Garcia
Frankie Creel/US PresswireQuarterback Stephen Garcia led the Gamecocks to a stunning 35-21 victory against Alabama.
Seriously, he was gushing.

“Stephen Garcia played the best he’s ever played,” said Spurrier, who joked that he awarded himself the game ball for moving into sole possession of second place all-time with 107 career SEC-regular season wins.

But in reality, if anybody deserved a game ball Saturday in the aftermath of one of the more glorious fall afternoons in South Carolina football history, it was the embattled Garcia.

After all, the Gamecocks beat the No. 1-ranked team in the country about as often as Spurrier praises Garcia.

“That was Stephen’s best game by far that he has played here at South Carolina,” Spurrier continued.

A few minutes later, Spurrier dished out a few more glowing compliments to the same guy he spent much of the offseason questioning.

Questioning his work ethic. Questioning his focus. Questioning his commitment to being a first-rate quarterback.

He’s the same quarterback Spurrier yanked from the Auburn game two weeks ago in the fourth quarter after back-to-back fumbles. Never mind that Garcia was 15-of-21 for 235 yards and had three touchdowns.

And the same quarterback who’s been maddeningly good at times and maddeningly bad at times throughout his South Carolina career.

On this day, one they’ll remember for a long time to come in Gamecock Country, Garcia was the kind of quarterback you can build championship around teams around -- period.

The 6-2, 227-pound junior finished 17-of-20 (a career-best .850 completion percentage) for 201 yards and matched a career high with three touchdown passes. His only interception bounced out of the hands of Alshon Jeffery on what should have been a first-down completion, but Garcia will gladly forgive his favorite target, who was sensational in his own right.

The Alabama defense had no answers for either one most of the game.

“Stephen played sensational today, took care of the ball nicely, handed it off, ran a few times in there and didn’t duck his head,” Spurrier said. “He got all he could, got down, and that’s how you play football. His passes were sensational.

“That corner route Alshon caught, the second touchdown, that was unbelievable. He threw it in the only spot he could possibly throw it, and of course, Alshon made a great catch. But 17 out of 20 against Alabama? This was Stephen’s best day, and hopefully he can build on this.”

Garcia downplayed what a whirlwind ride it’s been for him at South Carolina.

But he certainly hasn’t lost his sense of humor.

Asked about his ability to hang in there mentally despite everything that’s happened and everything that’s been said about him, Garcia said, “Since I’ve been here, I’ve developed some pretty thick skin. That’s all I can really say about that.”

Alabama coach Nick Saban was emphatic after the game that it was South Carolina that won the game and not necessarily the Crimson Tide losing it.

Likewise, he said Garcia’s penchant for standing in there and making plays was a big reason why the Gamecocks did what nobody else has been able to do since the tail end of the 2007 season -- and that’s beat Alabama in an SEC regular-season game.

“Garcia played well and made a lot of good throws,” Saban said. “We got pressure on him and hit him just as he was throwing, and he still made the throws.”

More times than not, Garcia was looking in the direction of Jeffery, who’s quickly making it a three-player argument as to who’s the best receiver in this league.

The 6-4 Jeffery is pushing 230 pounds, has great hands and is an impossible matchup for smaller cornerbacks. But there were times Saturday that he simply ran by Alabama defensive backs and caught the ball even when they were hanging onto his jersey.

“You throw it up to him, and he’s going to come down with it,” Garcia said. “I wouldn’t trade him for anybody.”

Jeffery, who had seven catches for 127 yards and two touchdowns, said it’s as ready as he’s seen this team for a game Saturday.

“We let it get away at Auburn and didn’t finish that game,” Jeffery said. “We weren’t going to let that happen again.”

Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy told Garcia after the game at midfield that he’d see him again in Atlanta in the SEC championship game.

Obviously, that would be a first for the Gamecocks.

But maybe this is shaping up as a season of firsts in Columbia.

Did you hear the way the Head Ball Coach was gushing about Garcia?

Chris Low talks with Marcus Lattimore whose big day helped South Carolina upset Alabama.

Video: South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery

October, 9, 2010

Chris Low talks with South Carolina Gamecocks receiver Alshon Jeffery following the win over Alabama.

Video: Nick Saban on Alabama's loss

October, 9, 2010

Coach Nick Saban talks about No. 1 Alabama's loss to No. 19 South Carolina.

Final: S. Carolina 35, Alabama 21

October, 9, 2010
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- South Carolina snapped Alabama’s 19-game winning streak and sent the defending national championship packing Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium with a 35-21 victory that reverberated throughout the SEC.

Here’s an instant analysis from the game:

How the game was won: South Carolina scored touchdowns on its first three possessions, jumping out to a 21-3 lead, and then came up with several big defensive stands in the second half. The Gamecocks were able to stay out of third-and-long, and South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier kept the Alabama defense off balance the entire game with some of his vintage play calling.

Turning point: The start of the second half was about as shaky as it gets for South Carolina, and Alabama pulled within 21-14. But the Gamecocks answered with a 15-play, 82-yard touchdown drive, capped by Marcus Lattimore's 1-yard scoring run, to make it a two-touchdown game again.

Stat of the game: South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia missed just three passes the entire game. He finished 17-of-20 for 201 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. He opened the game hitting his first nine passes.

Player of the game: South Carolina sophomore receiver Alshon Jeffery was sensational. He made big play after big play for the Gamecocks, and none was bigger than his one-handed catch down the sideline to set up the Gamecocks’ final touchdown. He finished with seven catches for 127 yards and two touchdowns.

Unsung hero: The South Carolina offensive line has taken a lot of abuse. But the Gamecocks’ first-year offensive line coach, Shawn Elliott, had those guys ready to play Saturday, and they played one of their better (and gutsier) games in a long time.

What it means: It’s the first time Alabama has lost an SEC regular-season game since the end of the 2007 season. The Western Division race all of a sudden looks a lot more interesting, and the Crimson Tide all of a sudden look a lot more vulnerable. South Carolina, meanwhile, takes a huge step forward in the Eastern Division race after defeating a No. 1-ranked team for the first time in school history. There’s still a whole half of a season to play, but this is easily the best chance the Gamecocks have had to get to Atlanta and play for the SEC championship.


Does Alabama have anything left?

October, 9, 2010
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Alabama has been the best team in the country for the better part of the last two years.

But the Crimson Tide haven't been in this situation -- down two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, on the road and the opposing fans smelling blood.

The most surprising part of it all?

When South Carolina has needed to come up with a drive, that's exactly what the Gamecocks have done.

Alabama's defense has been exposed. That's putting it mildly.

We'll see if the Tide have enough left to pull it out of the fire.

Head Ball Coach got it rolling

October, 9, 2010
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- There's no other way to say it right now than just to say it: The Head Ball Coach is handing it to the Alabama defensive braintrust.

Steve Spurrier has demonstrated in this game why he's one of the best playcallers ever in college football. He's been able to spread out Alabama and keep the Crimson Tide off balance with an array of different passes, passes to the running backs, draw plays and a few shots down the field.

Give the South Carolina offensive line some credit, too. The Gamecocks are more than holding their own. The 82-yard, 15-play drive to put South Carolina ahead 28-14 following the safety was the kind of drive you don't see very often against this Alabama defense.

It's also a drive the Gamecocks had to have, because you could feel the momentum slipping away.

Now the crowd at Williams-Brice Stadium is back into it, and we'll see if the Tide have what it takes to come back on the road for the second time in three weeks.

Now, that's 'Bad' Garcia

October, 9, 2010
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Just when you think Stephen Garcia is going to make it through a game without one of those "Huh?" plays, he does what he did to open the third quarter.

After not handling a high shotgun snap, he chose to throw the ball through the end zone for a safety instead of falling on the ball at the 2. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier looked stunned on the sideline after watching the Gamecocks start the second half precisely the way they didn't want to.

As it was, Alabama only got a field goal out of it after receiving the free kick, but it's a sequence that completely changed the complexion of this game.

At the half: S. Carolina 21, Alabama 9

October, 9, 2010
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- South Carolina scored the first three times it had the ball and took a 21-9 lead over No. 1-ranked Alabama into halftime Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium.

Here’s a quick halftime analysis:

Player of the half: South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia was 9-for-9 with three touchdown passes, two to Alshon Jeffery.

Turning point: Trailing 21-3, Alabama was finally able to get into the end zone right before halftime on Greg McElroy’s 8-yard touchdown pass to Julio Jones on third-and-goal with 38 seconds remaining.

What Alabama needs to do: The Crimson Tide haven’t been able to get to Garcia and force him into any mistakes. The one or two times they were able to get back there, he was able to escape. Much like the Arkansas game two weeks ago, Alabama needs to create some turnovers and change the complexion of this game. Right now, Garcia is in a rhythm, and Alabama hasn’t been able to get the Gamecocks in a lot of third-and-long situations.

Where's the Wildcat?

October, 9, 2010
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- It looked like Alabama had found something offensively in the second quarter with its Wildcat package.

The Crimson Tide kept the ball for nine minutes with Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson taking turns with the direct snap.

But on third-and-4 near the goal line, it's hard to believe the Tide didn't come back with the Wildcat formation. You figure at that point you've got two downs to make 4 yards, and you're already pounding away with Ingram and Richardson.

Instead, Greg McElroy was sacked on third down trying to pass, and Alabama's Jeremy Shelley missed a 31-yard field goal attempt.

'Good' Garcia shows up

October, 9, 2010
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Clearly, this is the "Good" Stephen Garcia we're seeing in the first half against Alabama.

Maybe as good as he's ever been.

Garcia has started 8-for-8 with three touchdown passes. And right now, Alabama doesn't have an answer for South Carolina receiver Alshon Jeffery. He's just running by Alabama defenders and showing why some in these parts aren't so quick to anoint Georgia's A.J. Green as the best receiver in this conference.

Gamecocks keeping Tide off balance

October, 9, 2010
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Alabama entered this game having allowed only three touchdowns all season.

South Carolina has already scored two touchdowns … on its first two drives to take a 14-3 lead.

In other words, here the Crimson Tide are again. It’s almost identical to the position they were in the last time they went on the road. Arkansas jumped out to a 20-7 lead.

And similar to that game, South Carolina is having success moving the ball through the air.

Safety Mark Barron simply didn’t get over in time on Stephen Garcia’s 26-yard touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery, but it was as good a throw as Garcia has made all season.

Give the Head Ball Coach credit. He’s had Alabama’s number and is keeping the Crimson Tide off balance.

Gamecocks riding Lattimore

October, 9, 2010
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- It was no secret that South Carolina wanted to get freshman running back Marcus Lattimore more involved than it did two weeks ago at Auburn.

The Gamecocks’ opening drive was an indication that Steve Spurrier is serious about riding his freshman.

Lattimore touched the ball three times in the Gamecocks’ touchdown drive, including the 9-yard touchdown catch. He’s extremely effective catching the ball out of the backfield, which is an area the Gamecocks may exploit even more this game.

In the 35-27 loss to Auburn, Lattimore only ran the ball three times in the second half.

Mosley pushing to be a starter

October, 9, 2010
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The freshman to watch in Alabama's defense is linebacker C.J. Mosley.

In fact, it looks like Mosley may start Saturday against South Carolina at weakside linebacker. He returned an interception for a touchdown last week against Florida, and the Alabama coaches love his instincts and his nose for the ball.

Junior linebacker Chris Jordan has been slowed by a hamstring injury. He was out there during warm-ups, but is questionable for the game.

Tide have become SEC's rock stars

October, 9, 2010
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Nick Saban prides himself on putting a blue-collar, no-nonsense football team on the field every Saturday.

But the reality is that Alabama has become the SEC's resident rock band that everybody flocks to see.

That's what happens when you win 19 games in a row overall and 29 consecutive regular-season games. The Crimson Tide haven't lost an SEC regular-season game since the end of the 2007 season when they lost at Auburn.

There hasn't been much reason the past few weeks to think they're ripe for the taking today, but this is a South Carolina fan base that can sure taste it.

This place has been crazy since Friday when ESPN's "College GameDay" rolled into town. The partying on the Cockabooses has been a little livelier, and the rooster calls have been noticeably louder.

Steve Spurrier could use a signature win, and the Gamecocks could take a huge step toward their first-ever Eastern Division championship with a win over the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide.

But even with a loss, South Carolina's not out of the East race. The key game then would be Arkansas at home.

However it shakes out, the Gamecocks need to find a way to get to Gainesville with the East title on the line.