AUBURN, Ala. -- Just when you thought it was all figured out.
Stephen Garcia was having a fine game, perhaps the best of his career, until the fourth quarter. After a rough opening drive, he was getting rid of the ball, finding his men, picking up the blitzes and directing.
He was leading. The most important thing a quarterback can do.
And then, as he has seemingly his entire career, his one step forward became two steps back.
A fourth-quarter fumble gave No. 17 Auburn another crack at a touchdown it should have had, and the Tigers converted. Another fumble became Auburn's eight-point lead and a benching.
Although backup Connor Shaw threw two interceptions in the final seven minutes, each on drives that had chances to tie the game, the freshman looked good when he directed the Gamecocks downfield.
Maybe a little too good.
"Connor has got to get a look," coach Steve Spurrier said after USC's 35-27 loss. "He played pretty well in there."
Shaw has quickly developed, winning the backup job about a week after he reported to school in January, but Spurrier gave Garcia the starting role. Garcia proved he earned it, too, focusing on the things he had not done in the previous two years and getting off to a strong start in 2010.
His last two games had not been great, but they had not been terrible. The first three quarters against Auburn were very, very strong.
Then in the span of 15 minutes, Garcia went back into the pile and re-instigated the most popular topic of any Spurrier team -- a quarterback controversy.
"You just can't fumble twice in the second half -- that killed every single drive and pretty much killed momentum," Garcia said. "I expect (the questions). I've expected it since (Shaw) came in the spring, and that's just what's going to happen."
The problem was that after Garcia seemingly had the mantle of leadership squarely upon his shoulders, he again couldn't find the buttons to secure it. A fourth-year player, especially one who made his reputation as a dual-threat quarterback, should not be losing fumbles, much less twice in one quarter after the opposition has given him all of the momentum.
Spurrier has constantly harped on Garcia's inability to get rid of the ball when the blitz comes in, although many have thought it somewhat unjust considering the problems of the Gamecocks' offensive line. On Saturday, Garcia took his share of sacks when he simply had no time to throw, but the two fumbles came on plays where he ran out of trouble and still lost the ball.
"The last play he fumbled, he just wouldn't throw it," Spurrier sighed. "Got it out of the pocket, just wouldn't throw it. We thought we had a shot at that play, but he didn't see him, I guess."
The second fumble put Auburn ahead by eight, forcing USC to get a touchdown and a two-point conversion to tie, and the touchdown almost happened. Shaw threw a jump-ball to Alshon Jeffery that was just off his fingertips and fluttered long enough for Demond Washington to dive and intercept, cinching the game.
Shaw threw two picks, but Spurrier apparently saw enough before them to consider starting a true freshman in his next game. The next game just happens to be the defending national champion and No. 1 team in the country coming to Columbia.
With two weeks until then, the Gamecocks get to dwell on a loss and the most recent development. As it was with Blake Mitchell/Syvelle Newton and Chris Smelley/Garcia before, it's here again.
"That's not my call," Shaw brusquely answered when queried, but he can read his coach's comments as well as anyone else and see that it is now a topic.
Two weeks for Shaw to prepare and practice, waiting for his call if it comes. Two weeks for Garcia to once again see what he did wrong and try to fix it.
Two weeks of wondering.
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