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September 4, 2011

Garcia rides the carousel to another golden ring



CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Steve Spurrier pointed out how well Stephen Garcia looked on Saturday, as he calmly steered No. 12 South Carolina from a 17-0 hole to a 56-37 season-opening win. "He cleaned up today, shaved up his beard," the Head Ball Coach said in classic Spurrier-ese. "Decided to act like a quarterback. I think the guys admired and respected him for cleaning up and getting ready to play."

Maybe it was a reaction to Garcia's smooth new cheekbones, or maybe it was what Spurrier may know but won't admit - Garcia is the best option to quarterback the Gamecocks.

It was truly a tale of two quarterbacks on Saturday. Spurrier and Garcia each pointed out that starter Connor Shaw had some bad luck on tipped passes and such, and the whole team was hit with fumble-itis in the entire first half, even with Garcia in the game. But it was fact that the Gamecocks looked better and played better with Garcia under center.

"It seemed as if the offense responded to Stephen better, since they had been playing with him," said wide receiver Ace Sanders, choosing his words carefully. "That's who they were used to. It's kind of hard to say, since Connor, he really didn't play as bad as people might have thought he did. It was just missed assignments here or there. Kind of hard to tell."

Garcia took the high road, saying he supported Shaw and understood that Shaw had played better in preseason camp, despite Shaw having 33 career passes in real games and Garcia having over 6,000 passing yards. He also said there was no animosity between him and Spurrier, although it surely seemed that Spurrier was doing all he could not to credit Garcia too much in the post-game.

Spurrier said that Garcia didn't get a game ball, because his statistics were rather pedestrian. He did go ahead and anoint him the starter for next week's game at No. 19 Georgia, but refused to say he had perhaps made a mistake in starting Shaw over his most experienced QB.

"I never said he's our quarterback for the year, I said he's going to start," Spurrier insisted. "Connor deserved to start. All those balls that got tipped tonight, he hit them on the dead run in the scrimmages. No, I don't second-guess myself at all. We had competition and Connor won the competition."

Garcia concurred.

"He played better than I did in the scrimmages and in camp and coach Spurrier made that decision," Garcia said. "Connor and I are friends and we knew how to handle it. It was tough, but this team is as strong of a team since I've been here."

No one can definitely say that Garcia wouldn't have fumbled on the play that gave East Carolina the early momentum. Shaw took off on a scramble in the first quarter, after leading a very solid drive to the Pirates' 19-yard-line, and got hit so hard that he lost his helmet and the ball. Garcia may have done the exact same.

But because the decision to start Shaw caused such an uproar, it became a case of Garcia as the tragic hero. To his credit, he came in and played like the straight hero, tragedy aside, even if his coach didn't give him a whole lot of credit.

Again, Garcia downplayed it, but one could almost sense that he was bursting to escape the post-game and really begin feeling good about it. As many times as Garcia has messed up off the field, the team loves him - and he rewarded that on Saturday.

"I was just playing to win," he said. "I just felt like I gave us a little spark."

Those sparks can turn into fires rather quickly.

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