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Terriers tag USC with more frustration

Gamecocks’ defensive fatigue spurs fourth-down decision; Garcia may be next QB to get the call

jperson@thestate.com

In the moments after South Carolina’s 23-13 win Saturday, Steve Spurrier lingered near midfield, shaking hands with and patting the chests of more than a dozen of Wofford’s players.

After another close call against the smallest football-playing school in Division I, Spurrier might have offered to provide the Terriers a police escort back up I-26 to Spartanburg.

The good news: Wofford is not on USC’s future schedules.

For the second time in three years, the Gamecocks struggled to put away the pesky Terriers. While the defense had problems with Wofford’s triple option in a 27-20 win in 2006, this time it was USC’s offense that sputtered.

On a night when quarterback Chris Smelley had three first-half turnovers and one of the best offensive play calls came from defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, Spurrier suggested he might start second-year quarterback Stephen Garcia against Alabama-Birmingham next week to get the offense cranking.

“We’re in a rut here and maybe we’re ready to let him take off and see what happens next week,” Spurrier said. “If it’s not very good, maybe we’ll come back with one of our other quarterbacks.”

Smelley’s 17-yard touchdown pass to Dion LeCorn with 1:58 remaining capped off a 13-play, 70-yard drive and sealed the Gamecocks’ first win in three weeks.

USC (2-2) has not lost to a Football Championship Subdivision school since a 38-35 defeat to The Citadel in 1990.

“We knew Wofford would give us all we could handle and more, and certainly they did. They played very well, no turnovers,” Spurrier said. “Obviously, we were a lot bigger than Wofford. Their guys play tough, play smart. They don’t give you anything. I really admire the way coach (Mike) Ayers and their coaches get the most out of their players.”

Some in the Williams-Brice Stadium crowd of 76,599 booed the offense near the end of the first half, which ended with Smelley’s second interception of the game.

But Smelley and Co. came through after the Terriers (2-1) cut the lead to 16-13 on a 36-yard field goal by Patrick Mugan with 7:50 remaining. The nearly six-minute drive featured a pair of third-down conversions and a critical fourth-down conversion in USC territory.

Facing a fourth-and-1 at the 39-yard line with 6:20 left, Spurrier kept his offense on the field after asking Johnson what he wanted Spurrier to do.

“I didn’t want the defensive coaches mad at me. They’re doing most of the playing around here right now,” Spurrier said. “(Johnson) didn’t hesitate. He said go for it.”

Johnson, whose defense had been on the field for seven minutes the previous series, said it was important for the offense to keep the ball. Smelley gained 2 yards on a sneak to keep the drive alive.

“I was kind of yelling to go for it,” Smelley said. “I thought they really wouldn’t have much of a chance to stop us.”

After several nice runs by Mike Davis, Smelley found LeCorn on a corner route in the end zone.

It was a strange offensive night for the Gamecocks, who racked up 30 first downs, never punted and held a two-minute edge in time of possession over the ball-control Terriers.

But the Gamecocks’ inability to hit any downfield passes against a Wofford secondary ranked last in the Southern Conference in pass defense caused Spurrier consternation.

Smelley’s longest completion was a 20-yard, catch-and-run to Moe Brown.

“Right now we can’t score a lot of points against the air out there,” Spurrier said. “Wofford’s got a pretty good defense. But obviously their talent’s not near what we’ve been facing. Somehow or another we’ve got to find a way to score some touchdowns.”

The solution could be Garcia, the much-hyped right-hander who made his debut against Georgia but did not play against Wofford.

Smelley, whose first pass was intercepted, completed 23 of 33 passes for 204 yards. The redshirt sophomore is 5-4 as a starter, but could be on the verge of losing his spot.

“I guess that’s kind of how it is playing quarterback here,” Smelley said. “But the only thing I can control is going out and playing to the best of my abilities.”

With the exception of quarterback Ben Widmyer’s career-long, 50-yard touchdown run that gave the Terriers their only lead at 7-3, the Gamecocks did a better job defending the triple option than two years ago. Even so, Wofford’s 285 total yards were the most allowed by USC this year.

Widmyer was impressed with the Terriers’ ball protection.

“To not have a turnover on a quality team like that, it’s pretty incredible,” he said. “They’re probably one of the best (defenses) in the country, so that’s definitely good.”

As for the Gamecocks, they were happy to get the win and relieved to be done with Wofford for a while.

“Definitely glad to get them off the schedule because they’re a team that will just nag you,” said tailback Brian Maddox, whose father played at Wofford before transferring to Western Carolina. “I mean, they’ll stay by your side the whole game. You’ve just got to put them away.”

Reach Person at (803) 771-8496.

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