As the start of the 2012 season nears, GamecockCentral.com's David Cloninger takes a look back at the top plays of 2011, South Carolina's finest year. The No. 1 play from last year will be revealed on Aug. 30, USC's season-opener.
NO. 10: Saving The Day
The game: East Carolina vs. No. 12 South Carolina (in Charlotte), Sept. 3
The scene: East Carolina 17, South Carolina 0, 7:52, second quarter
The cast: Quarterback Stephen Garcia
The setup: Unbelievable.
The large contingent of USC fans that had traveled to Charlotte to watch the season-opener of what was expected to be the Gamecocks' greatest year were stunned and disgusted. The Pirates had done whatever they wanted to, and USC was throwing the game away with turnovers and awful play. At least one exasperated voice was heard to holler, "I can't believe we fell for it -- again!"
Starter Connor Shaw had been bullied into mistakes in the first quarter and Steve Spurrier, as he said he would, put in Garcia for the second quarter. Many groaned about the decision to start Shaw in the first place, and then lamented the situation that Garcia had been put in - in an even game, Garcia could operate. Forced to win from behind, well, that wasn't as rosy. It was setting up to be the same story - great expectations, massive talent, the belief that this, finally, was The Year, was going to be the Same Ol' USC. Just not quite ready for prime time.
ECU had the ball as the second quarter dawned and scored its second touchdown. A Kenny Miles fumble was recovered on the kickoff and the Pirates booted a field goal for the 17-0 lead, before Garcia ever got on the field. With the crowd grumbling and dialing its collective travel agents to cancel those trips to Starkville and Atlanta, Garcia took the field and immediately threw incomplete to Alshon Jeffery.
A groan swept through Bank of America Stadium, but then Garcia hit Marcus Lattimore for a 20-yard pass. He followed with a 5-yard QB keeper, then a handoff to Lattimore for 2 more yards.
Facing third-and-3 at the ECU 32-yard-line, time in the half running out and knowing that to give the ball back to the Pirates would probably mean another score, Garcia set up under center and called for the snap.
The play: T.J. Johnson fired the ball back to Garcia and immediately got his hands up. Before he could get in position, he saw the blur of the man he was supposed to protect, Garcia, running past him.
Garcia was through for the first down almost immediately, and seeing the seas part in front of him, saw no reason to stop running. He was at full speed as the defense tried to get back in position, linebacker Justin Dixon reversing to angle to the middle of the field and knock Garcia down.
Garcia saw him coming, turned on the jets and ran right past him. Although he cradled the ball into his chest with both hands as he crossed the goal line, there was no need - Garcia was 10 yards in front of everyone as he finished a 32-yard scoring scamper.
Like all good heroes did, and although his season would end in disappointment, Garcia had given the Gamecocks a boost. They used it.
The aftermath: The tide had been turned. The Gamecocks began playing behind Garcia and ECU began committing mistakes. Despite being ahead 24-14 at halftime, the Pirates fumbled away three straight possessions in the second half as USC spurted ahead. USC out-scored the Pirates 56-20 after trailing 17-0 and easily won their opener, even as Garcia's performance - 7-of-15 for 110 yards and one touchdown, plus running for 56 yards and two more scores - wasn't deemed worthy of a game ball.
He didn't need one. Everybody in the stadium knew who won that game.
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