LEXINGTON, Ky. — On a day that featured more strange sights than the midway at the State Fair, it was only fitting that South Carolina’s game-winning touchdown came on a trick play delivered by the backup quarterback.
Or to be precise, the Gamecocks’ former No. 2 quarterback.
Stephen Garcia came off the bench Saturday and directed a pair of fourth-quarter scoring drives to lead the Gamecocks past Kentucky 24-17 and silence a crowd of 70,822 at Commonwealth Stadium.
Garcia completed 10 of 14 passes for 169 yards and threw the go-ahead, 7-yard touchdown pass to Weslye Saunders midway through the fourth quarter after Saunders lined up as an eligible tackle.
USC coach Steve Spurrier, who improved to 16-0 against Kentucky, wasted no time endorsing Garcia. The redshirt freshman will make his first career start next week against No. 4 LSU.
“Stephen, I think, surprised us all,” Spurrier said. “He threw the ball where guys could catch it, threw a very catchable pass, threw it on time, threw it in the openings of the defense. Shoot, looked pretty good for his first meaningful playing time.
“The other games he was just out there running around. With the game on the line, Stephen came through and Jason Barnes made big, big catches over and over for us.”
Spurrier stayed perfect against Kentucky on a day when his team was anything but.
The Gamecocks (5-2, 2-2 SEC) had four first-half turnovers and the normally reliable Ryan Succop missed four field goals, as many as he missed in each of the 2006 and ‘07 seasons.
With his 154 return yards, Captain Munnerlyn out-gained USC’s offense (133) in the first half. Kenny McKinley fumbled on the play in which he broke Sterling Sharpe’s school record for career receptions.
And starting quarterback Chris Smelley followed his career day last week at Mississippi by overthrowing open receivers and failing to move the offense.
Smelley started the second half by overshooting Kenny McKinley on what appeared to be a certain touchdown. After the Gamecocks went three-and-out on their first two possessions, Spurrier sent in Garcia, who had not played since the Alabama-Birmingham game two weeks ago.
“It was a lot louder than I anticipated. I didn’t think Kentucky would be this big,” Garcia said. “But we just moved the ball and pretty much took the air out of the stadium.”
Garcia was sacked on consecutive plays on his first series. But he made a number of pinpoint throws on the next two drives, converting 3-of-5 third downs to lead USC back from a 17-14 deficit.
After Garcia’s 38-yard pass to Barnes gave USC a first-and-goal at the 7, Spurrier signaled for “Cajun,” a tackle-eligible play LSU used against Ohio State in the national championship game in January.
With right tackle Justin Sorensen lined up wide left with a gaggle of receivers, Garcia looked right and found Saunders in the end zone.
“That’s a head coach play there,” said USC receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr., who shares play-calling duties with his father.
On the two scoring drives, Garcia hit completions to convert a third-and-14, a third-and-10 and a third-and-12. Overall, USC was 8-of-17 on third down.
“It was really frustrating,” Kentucky linebacker Micah Johnson said. “We usually stop third-down conversions and get off the field. We just couldn’t do that. If we continue to do that, we won’t win very many games.”
Kentucky (4-2, 0-2), which lost its ninth game in a row to USC, managed 56 yards and four first downs in the second half. The ‘Cats were 1-for-16 on third down.
Munnerlyn starred on special teams with an 84-yard kickoff return and an 81-yard touchdown return of a blocked field goal. Jordin Lindsey received a game ball after making a sack and blocking the kick that Munnerlyn returned.
But their efforts might have gone unrewarded had Garcia not come in and started winging the ball around.
“He was a real leader today,” McKinley said. “Garcia came in, he was on point. He was on rhythm. He drove our offense up and down the field.”
Now he’ll get the chance to do it again, this time as the starter.
Hear USC postgame interviews with Spurrier, players