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Garcia draws tough first test in SEC

South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia runs away from Kentucky defender Ashton Cobb during the second half of their game in Lexington, Ky., Saturday.  South Carolina won the game 24-17.
South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia runs away from Kentucky defender Ashton Cobb during the second half of their game in Lexington, Ky., Saturday. South Carolina won the game 24-17.

Nothing has come easy for Stephen Garcia at South Carolina, so why would his first career start be any different?

Garcia came off the bench to win the Kentucky game and, in the process, win the starting quarterback job for Saturday’s game against LSU, the defending national champion which will arrive in Columbia in a foul mood following a 51-21 loss to Florida at the Swamp.

Garcia, a redshirt freshman from Lutz, Fla., said he was “pretty excited but pretty nervous, too, playing against LSU as your first start.”

Garcia is the highest-rated quarterback signed by Steve Spurrier at USC. But his career was sidetracked by three arrests or citations in a 15-month span, causing him to miss spring practice the past two years while suspended.

After running for 86 yards against Alabama-Birmingham two weeks ago, Garcia showed off the right arm that prompted to rank Garcia among the nation’s top dual-threat quarterback prospects in 2006.

Relieving an ineffective Chris Smelley near the end of the third quarter, Garcia led a pair of fourth-quarter scoring drives and completed 10-of-14 passes for 169 yards and a touchdown to lead the Gamecocks to a come-from-behind, 24-17 victory against the Wildcats.

After the UAB game, Spurrier said Garcia likely would start the following week at Mississippi. Spurrier later changed his mind and started Smelley, who threw for a career-high 327 yards in the 31-24 win at Oxford.

But Spurrier sounds set on Garcia this time.

“He’s our best quarterback we think right now. He certainly has earned and deserves a chance,” Spurrier said Sunday. “Chris Smelley really seemed to struggle on a lot of throws the other night, and Stephen just about made every throw he attempted.”

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Spurrier will attempt to limit the distractions for Garcia by restricting media access to him. Garcia, who has been friendly and engaging in his dealings with reporters, will be available to the media once this week — at the Gamecocks’ Tuesday press day.

“History just tells us the more attention they get, the worse they play. It’s just a fact of life,” Spurrier said. “I don’t think that was Chris Smelley’s problem. I hope it wasn’t. I don’t know what his problem was. But Chris just had a tough time throwing completions to guys that were open.”

Smelley was 9-of-23 for 105 yards against Kentucky with two interceptions, including one that Trevard Lindley returned for a first-quarter touchdown. He also overshot a number of open receivers.

Despite getting sacked three times, Garcia demonstrated good touch on his passes. He had completions of 27, 17 and 38 yards to Jason Barnes on the two scoring drives.

Spurrier said Garcia could have had two more completions if receivers had held on to the ball.

“He was on target with just about all of his passes,” Spurrier said. “But it was only one half, less than a half. We’re hoping and believing that will continue.”

While appreciative of LSU’s tradition of success, Garcia said back-to-back SEC road wins have given the Gamecocks a jolt of confidence.

“We’ve got a pretty big challenge ahead of us. But these two teams we played the last two weeks haven’t been exactly a cakewalk,” he said. “Playing at Ole Miss and at Kentucky and coming out with wins has been huge. We’re going to use the momentum and go forward and try to knock LSU off.”

Kenny McKinley’s, who broke USC’s all-time receptions record at Kentucky, likes the Gamecocks’ chances if Garcia can duplicate last week’s performance.

“That’s a lot of pressure right there,” McKinley said of Garcia facing the Tigers. “But I know Garcia, as much confidence as he had (at Kentucky), it’s going to be no sweat for him. ... If he does like he did (last weekend), we’ll have a win.”

Reach Person at (803) 771-8496.