This bowl will have different ending for USC

12/31/2010 12:00 AM

12/31/2010 12:04 AM

SOUTH CAROLINA’S APPROACH to tonight’s Chick-fil-A Bowl game has been different. A convincing victory over Florida State will show how different.

For nearly all of the past year, the Bowl loss to Connecticut has stuck like a thorn in Steve Spurrier’s side. So he has gone about making certain tonight’s game has a different outcome than either the Bowl or the 2009 Outback Bowl.

“I don’t want to get into all the details, but it will be a little different than what we’ve done in the past around here, because, obviously, whatever the heck we’ve done hasn’t worked very well the last two years,” Spurrier said a couple of weeks ago. “I think I know why, but we’ll do some things differently.”

The most tangible difference in approach had to do with USC sending its first-team offense against its first-team defense for at least 20 minutes in every practice leading up to the bowl game. Ellis Johnson, USC’s assistant head coach for defense, said thin ranks on the scout team forced the issue somewhat, but the decision to play the best against the best in practice was calculated.

USC also moved many of its practices to early in the day as a way of making certain players were up early and prepared for the task at hand. Additionally, USC stepped up its conditioning from previous bowl practices.

Finally, weight-lifting sessions became part of the routine after each practice. USC even shipped its weights to Atlanta, and the team concluded every practice in the Georgia Dome with weight-lifting on the field.

The results, according to quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus, were more-physical practices.

“We definitely did a lot more one against one,” Mangus said, “and that just helps with tempo and makes it more physical, too.”

Beyond that, and perhaps of more significance, has been making certain every player knows the importance of this bowl game. Mention of a possible 10-win season has been made in nearly every interview session with players and coaches.

“I just think the attitude of the team is maybe a little bit different,” said Stephen Garcia, USC’s starting quarterback. “I think we are a lot more focused, a lot more serious. We’ve got a chance to do something here that’s only been done once before, and that’s win 10 games. That’s a big goal we’re looking forward to.”

Perhaps Spurrier’s previous four bowl teams at USC lacked a concrete goal to attain. Whatever the reason, his USC teams generally have not performed well in the postseason.

USC blew a 21-0, first-quarter lead in losing the 2005 Independence Bowl to Missouri, and Spurrier was critical of players who approached the game with one eye on the NFL. Defensive backs Ko Simpson and Johnathan Joseph said after the game they were headed to pro football.

Players Dakota Walker and Taylor Rank were sent home early from the 2006 Liberty Bowl in Memphis, a game in which USC hung on to defeat Houston. The 2009 Outback Bowl was a disaster against Iowa, as Garcia turned the ball over four times in the first half of his homecoming game in Tampa.

Spurrier has been unable to find a reason USC was dominated by Connecticut in the Bowl this past January, but players leaving the sideline early and a scuffle between a player and an assistant coach had fans concerned about the direction of the program.

Spurrier vowed that performance would not be repeated in a bowl game. All factors seem to be falling into place for USC to not only win a 10{+t}{+h} game for the second time in program history, but also to send the team into next season with great optimism.

“You can only practice so long. Sometimes you can over practice, I think,” Spurrier said. “You try to do it just right. You try to not overdo it or under-do it. You try to hit it just right, but the main thing is (having) a group of players who really want to play and play the game, play the game well.”

USC appears to have that perfect mix for this bowl game. It helps to have a seasoned quarterback in Garcia, who has something to prove after two disastrous bowl showings, a big-time running back/receiver combo in Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery, and a defense that aims to make amends for a less-than-stellar performance in the SEC Championship Game loss to Auburn.

Throw in an opponent from the ACC, which produced one quality team, Virginia Tech, this season, and you have all the makings for a relatively easy USC victory.

Now that would be something different.

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