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Kentucky: The Post and Courier
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Garcia to the Rescue

Backup QB helps lift Gamecocks to victory

Published on 10/12/08
The Post and Courier

LEXINGTON, KY. — It's never easy here for South Carolina. And usually there's an unexpected hero.

Check, and check, yet again Saturday

for the Gamecocks against Kentucky.

After stumbling around offensively for 2 1/2 quarters, enter Stephen Garcia as the savior.

The redshirt freshman quarterback engineered two fourth-quarter scoring drives, including a trick-play touchdown with seven minutes left, and South Carolina escaped with a 24-17 victory against the Wildcats at Commonwealth Stadium.

"With the game on the line, Stephen came through," Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said.

South Carolina had four first-half turnovers, three by starting quarterback Chris Smelley, and four missed field goals from usually automatic Ryan Succop.

In the all-that-matters category, USC still won.

Offsetting those first-half errors were an 84-yard kickoff return by Captain Munnerlyn, setting up USC's first score, and an 81-yard blocked field goal return by Munnerlyn.

Defensive end Jordin Lindsey got a forearm on the short field goal attempt.

"It worked out," Spurrier said. "We're a happy bunch."

Garcia, Spurrier said, will start Saturday against reigning national champ Louisiana State.

"We're going to play Garcia now," he said.

"We're going to play Stephen. He's earned it. He's the quarterback."

After dropping six consecutive

conference games over the span of

a year, South Carolina (5-2, 2-2) has now won consecutive SEC games in back-to-back weeks. On the road, no less.

"It's huge," Garcia said. "Coach Spurrier said 5-2 is a lot better than 4-3 ... That was two big wins on the road against pretty good teams. These haven't exactly been cakewalks."

For the second straight week, the South Carolina defense deserves a bunch of credit for the road win.

Chris Culliver's interception in the final minute sealed the game, much the same way as Carlos Thomas' did last week at Ole Miss.

Lindsey said a "pretty intense" halftime meeting about assignment football yielded a second half to remember.

Kentucky (4-2, 0-2) had 55 total yards and no points in the final two quarters. The Wildcats had 218 total yards in the game.

"He let us know we needed to pick our crap up, get back into the game," Lindsey said of the message from coordinator Ellis Johnson.

In fairness, Kentucky's most experienced receiver, Dicky Lyons Jr., didn't play the second half after suffering a knee injury.

Meanwhile, South Carolina's offense was doing just enough with Garcia running things.

Following the recent Bluegrass legacies of USC backup quarterbacks Mike Rathe and Syvelle Newton, Garcia entered the game with 6:46 left in the third quarter.

He did what Smelley, the SEC's reigning offensive player of the week, simply could not do: He hit open receivers.

"He was getting them in there like he'd been doing it his whole life," USC receiver Jason Barnes said. "That's what I like to see. That's what we needed."

Garcia had the arm, in particular, for the fade route to Barnes. In man-to-man coverage, even a solid Kentucky secondary couldn't stop the freshman-to-freshman connection.

A 27-yard pitch-and-catch on the fade to Barnes helped set up Succop's only field goal in five tries, from 42 yards, to tie the game at 17.

On the next possession, a 38-yard reception on that go route to Barnes set up USC with first-and-goal from the 7.

The Gamecocks rushed up to the line, Garcia signaled in a play called "Cajun" — named after LSU ran it in last year's national title game — and suddenly Weslye Saunders was standing in the end zone with the ball.

The funky play had 6-7 right tackle Justin Sorensen lined up to the left at receiver, with Saunders hunkered over at right tackle so no one could see his numbers.

He launched up field, no one went with him and Garcia fed him.

"It was just wide-open," Garcia said, adding that he was in disbelief that the play was actually being called. "I didn't think we were running the right play. I thought the wristband was wrong."

In the game-tying field-goal drive and the touchdown drive, Garcia helped USC convert on third down three times, covering 14, 10 and 12 yards.

The Gamecocks — leading the SEC in the category coming in — converted 8 of 17 in the game, compared to 1 of 16 for Kentucky.

"There's where the ballgame was right there," Spurrier said.

Well, that, the defense and that Garcia kid.

"Shoot," Spurrier said, "he looked pretty good for his first meaningful time ever."

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