For the first time this season, one of the main topics of conversation exiting a South Carolina football game isn't the lack of production from the passing offense.
Stephen Garcia has always exhibited a high comfort level playing at home, and Saturday night's 24-21 victory over Navy was no exception.
After struggling to complete just 45 percent (18-of-40) of his passes in the first two games, Garcia was 18-of-25 passing for 204 yards and one interception in the win, which kept the Gamecocks unbeaten at 3-0. He also scrambled six times for 10 net yards and was sacked twice.
Garcia is 14-3 at Williams-Brice Stadium, 19-13 overall, as the starting quarterback for the Gamecocks. He raised his season completion percentage by 10 points to 55.4 percent (36-of-65) and now has 456 passing yards through three games (152.0 ypg), increasing his career passing yardage total to 7,209 yards.
He needs six wins to match Todd Ellis (24) for most victories by a quarterback in school history. Steve Taneyhill has 20 career wins, so Garcia can tie him on the all-time QB wins list on Saturday when USC hosts Vanderbilt at 7 p.m. in the second of a four-game homestand.
Garcia's numbers from Saturday night are even more impressive when you consider this nugget: he connected on just 1-of-4 passes on USC's opening possession, meaning over the final 3-1/2 quarters he was pinpoint accurate, going 17-of-21 for 192 yards.
"We had some guys that got open tonight," Garcia said. "We had some good plays and some guys made some good catches and good runs after the catches. Nick Jones had a great game. We're still practicing every single week and just trying to get a better as the year goes on. We still have to get a lot better than what we are right now."
For the second straight game, Garcia directed a fourth-quarter scoring drive that enabled USC to take the lead for good.
Just like the first two games, USC mixed the pass and run in the first half before riding the broad shoulders of sophomore running Marcus Lattimore in the second half. The Gamecocks had 17 runs and 15 passes in the opening 30 minutes before running the ball 27 times in 37 second half snaps.
Lattimore posted his seventh career 100-yard game, his third this season. Lattimore is now averaging 178.0 rushing yards and 6.1 yards per attempt in the first three games, so Garcia understands why USC would focus on the run.
"You can't thank that guy (Lattimore) enough," Garcia said. "The offensive line did great again tonight and opened up the lanes for him. He's hard to tackle, as everybody can tell."
USC never punted and scored points on four of their seven possessions during the fast-moving game. Garcia said the Gamecocks approached the game from the perspective that they were going to have to maximize every possession because of Navy's ability to methodically grind out long drives with the triple option offense.
"That's what we were talking about the entire game," Garcia said. "We knew we had had to score every time we touch the ball. Unfortunately, we didn't. The defense made plays when they had to and stopped them when they needed to. That's why we won."
Spurrier acknowledged afterwards that Garcia's poorest pass of the night shouldn't have happened. After USC took the second half kickoff and marched from their 18 to the Navy 8 in nine plays largely because of Lattimore, Spurrier called for a pass attempt to Alshon Jeffery on first down. Garcia was hit from behind and the ball floated into the arms of a Navy defender at the 2-yard line, thwarting USC's bid
Spurrier accepted the blame for the questionable play call.
"We tried to give Alshon a hitch-and-go down there on the goal line. Hang one up for him. I guess we messed up a protection, Stephen got pressured and tried to throw it away. He threw it right to the guy. I said, 'I have to take the blame for that.' I put him in position to make a mistake. You don't do those things on first down. That was bad on my part."
Overall, Garcia threw the ball much better in Saturday night's win than he did against East Carolina and Georgia. He connected with seven different receivers, a much higher than the two previous games. Jason Barnes (4 catches) and Bruce Ellington both registered their initial catches of the season, while Nick Jones and Justice Cunningham emerged as solid contributors.
"We had plays designed for other people tonight," Garcia said. "They made some good plays. Guys were stuck in there and made some plays. That's all it really came down to really."
Besides the interception, one of the few errant passes he threw all night came on USC's first drive when he seemingly had Ace Sanders streaking down the middle of the field, but overthrew him by several yards in the end zone.
But Garcia redeemed himself in the second quarter when he threw a perfect strike to Nick Jones on third-and-15 from the USC 39 for a critical 34-yard pickup. The key conversion led to USC's second touchdown of the game.
Garcia later described the third-down play as "pretty clutch."
"I think he did OK. There were a couple he could have thrown a little better," Spurrier said. "The one to Ace down the middle when we were on the (35). . .When you're there, you have to throw it a little straighter and not as far but that's the way it happened. He threw a beautiful one to Nicky down the sideline. That was one of the big plays in the game."
[Complete USC-Navy game coverage: Click here]
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