October 8, 2007

Smelley maturing as starting QB, team leader

Chris Smelley grew up as a college quarterback in the fourth quarter of last Thursday's 38-23 victory over previously unbeaten Kentucky.

And it happened right in front of 80,000 fans.

After a miserable third quarter in which the South Carolina offense compiled minus-15 yards on nine plays, Smelley led USC on a pair of long touchdown drives in the final period after the Wildcats had closed the gap to eight points on two occasions.

During the drives, Smelley hardly looked like a redshirt freshman making his third career start, completing all six of his passes for 102 yards, including several throws in key spots.

"Chris certainly played well at the end of (the Kentucky) game," Spurrier said. "He made some crucial throws. It was encouraging the way we finished the game."

Two of the six passes went for touchdowns to Patrick DiMarco and Cory Boyd, while three more produced first downs.

"He looked pretty good," Boyd said when asked about Smelley's performance. "He made the completions he had to make. He made the easy throws. He threw to the open receivers. Coach (Spurrier) was saying it was definitely a good game for him."

By refusing to be rattled and playing well late in the game, Smelley strengthened his grip on the starting QB job, though he humbly brushed off that assertion following the game.

"I don't really know," Smelley said. "I'm just out there competing as hard as I can every play and trying to become a better quarterback every game. I definitely feel like I've gotten a lot more comfortable out there. We've been able to complete some more passes and do some things downfield, so that's been good. I know I still made a lot of mistakes out there. There are some things to work on."

Smelley finished the game with 17 completions in 30 pass attempts for 256 yards and two touchdowns. For the season, he has completed 58-of-107 passes (54.2 percent) for 810 yards and six touchdowns with three interceptions.

The maturation process for Smelley, a native of Tuscaloosa, Ala., began when he was thrust into action in the second half of the LSU game. He led USC to nine points while throwing for 174 yards against one of the top defenses in the country.

It continued two weeks ago when Smelley led USC to three touchdowns in the final 18:43 of the game to pull out a 38-21 win over Mississippi State.

Since replacing Blake Mitchell after halftime of the LSU game, Smelley has completed 48-of-93 passes for 709 yards and five touchdowns.

"(Smelley) is our quarterback because he's played pretty well," Spurrier said. "He deserves to be our starter and our quarterback. Some of you guys think I jerk guys in and out on a whim, but I don't think I do. Right now, Chris has played pretty well the last two games. He's played better than any quarterback has played this year. But if he gets hurt Blake is ready to go."

Besides the final two touchdown drives, Smelley directed a crucial 10-play, 89-yard touchdown drive in the waning minutes of the first half to give the Gamecocks a 17-10 halftime lead.

"That was a huge drive going into halftime," Smelley said. "We knew we had a good plan for Kentucky and on that drive we were able to complete some passes downfield and make some good runs. The offensive line really stepped up big."

Smelley was 10-of-11 for 151 yards during USC's three touchdown drives against Kentucky last Thursday night.

With 922 career passing yards, Smelley could go over the 1,000-yard mark Saturday when USC faces rejuvenated North Carolina in Chapel Hill at 3:30 p.m. (ABC-TV).

Smelley opened the first touchdown drive of the fourth quarter against Kentucky by connecting with Jared Cook for 21 yards to the UK 40. After an illegal shift penalty erased a 13-yard pass to Mike Davis, Smelley shook it off and hooked up with Cory Boyd for 16 yards and a first down to the UK 24.

Three plays later, Smelley hit Patrick DiMarco on the left side. The freshman from Altamonte Springs, Fla. managed to stretch the ball over the goal line for a touchdown.

Smelley continued his passing prowess on the second TD drive, first connecting on a 24-yard completion to freshman Dion Lecorn to the UK 44.

"That little curl route (Lecorn) caught wasn't even in the game plan," Spurrier said. "We thought they were in a look where we could throw that little 12-yard hook we like to throw. He caught that thing and stepped up the sideline and made about 25 yards or so. That was a big play in the game right there."

Added Smelley: "I thought that was a big play. It kept the drive going. It kind of threw Kentucky off balance because I think they thought we were going to run the ball."

After a pair of rushes, Smelley hit McKinley on slant pass for seven yards on a third-and-3 for a crucial first down to the UK 30. A play later, he lofted a swing pass to Boyd, who took the ball to the house from 27 yards out for a clinching touchdown, giving USC a 38-23 lead with 3:28 left.

"Chris made some good key throws there at the end of the game," Spurrier said.

The game ended on a brighter note than the way it began.

When Smelley trotted out onto the field for USC's first series, he didn't realize the 25-second play clock was running. He was eventually forced to call a timeout before the Gamecocks had run a single play.

With USC at No. 7 in the A.P. poll and holding sole possession of first place in the SEC East, Smelley sees a great opportunity ahead for the Gamecocks.

"We feel like it's all in our hands," Smelley said. "We can either make ourselves a great season or make it a bust. We have to keep our head on straight and keep working as hard as we have been the whole year."

FOURTH QUARTER MAGIC: Here is a summary of Chris Smelley's pass attempts on the two fourth-quarter TD drives in last Thursday's win over Kentucky:

2-9 S39 Pass complete to Jared Cook for 21 yards;
2-10 K40 Pass complete to Cory Boyd for 16 yards;
2-G K07 Pass Complete to Patrick DiMarco for 7 yards (TD).
2-9 S32 Pass complete to Dion Lecorn for 24 yards;
3-3 K37 Pass complete to Kenny McKinley for 7 yards;
2-7 K27 Pass complete to Cory Boyd for 27 yards.

TOTAL: 6-for-6, 102 yards.

Date Opponent A-C-I Yards TD
8/31/06 at Miss. State 4-2-0 48 0
9/9/06 GEORGIA 11-7-0 64 0
9/1/07 LA-LAFAYETTE* 14-10-1 101 1
9/22/07 at LSU 26-12-1 174 1
9/29/07 MISS. STATE* 37-19-1 279 2
10/4/07 KENTUCKY* 30-17-0 256 2
TOTALS. . . . . . . . . . .122-67-3 922 6
* Games started

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