TAMPA, Fla. — Stephen Garcia’s homecoming was a ton of fun ... until the game started.
Back in his hometown for a New Year’s Day bowl game, Garcia spent the week practicing on his high school field, visiting with friends and family and showing teammates around Tampa.
But when the Outback Bowl kicked off under sunny skies Thursday morning, it was clear from the outset Garcia was not at Jefferson High School anymore.
Garcia threw an interception on his first pass attempt and had turnovers on the Gamecocks’ first four possessions, spoiling the storybook script for the player who set passing records and became one of the nation’s top quarterback prospects two miles away from Raymond James Stadium at Jefferson.
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By the end of Iowa’s 31-10 victory, Garcia was on the sideline wearing a headset while watching Chris Smelley lead the Gamecocks to fourth-quarter scores that were too little, too late.
“The way it ended was not the way it was supposed to go,” Garcia said. “It’s very frustrating for me playing in my home city. It’s pretty rough. ... Losing a bowl game in general is pretty frustrating, but especially here in my hometown with my family just adds it on.”
USC (7-6) finished on a losing skid for the second consecutive season. After dropping their final five games to miss a bowl game in 2007, the Gamecocks were outscored 118-30 in losing their past three this season to Florida, Clemson and Iowa.
“Just like last year, we went down at the end of the season and couldn’t finish,” receiver Kenny McKinley said after his final USC game. “To be a good team, you’ve got to be able to finish at the end of the season and we just didn’t do it. We pooped out.”
USC tied a school bowl record with five turnovers, giving the Gamecocks 13 giveaways over their final three games. USC’s 28 interceptions this season were the most among the 119 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Garcia, a redshirt freshman making his third career start, tossed his first pick when he overthrew Weslye Saunders before the tight end made his break. Garcia’s final two interceptions came on scramble plays when he was trying to make something happen.
Iowa safety Tyler Sash, who had two of the interceptions, said the Hawkeyes (9-4) learned through video study that Garcia often telegraphed his passes.
“He kind of liked to lock down on his receiver. He’d stare them down,” Sash said. “A lot of it was just reading the quarterback’s eyes.”
Smelley, who was picked off four times at Clemson, was 16-of-31 passing for 179 yards after replacing Garcia (9-of-18 for 79 yards) in the second half. USC avoided its first bowl shutout when Smelley lofted a 10-yard touchdown pass to Jared Cook with 13:35 remaining.
The Gamecocks had other follies besides the turnovers.
USC was penalized 10 times for 100 yards, both of which represented season highs and Gamecock bowl records.
The penalties included four personal fouls and an illegal formation call that wiped out a 46-yard field goal by Ryan Succop when the Gamecocks lined up with 10 men. After the penalty was walked off, Succop was short on a 51-yard try.
“We had a whole bunch of penalties. We had a whole bunch of — shoot, we had a whole bunch of stuff. Ten men on the field for a field goal,” said USC coach Steve Spurrier, who fell to 7-8 in bowl games. “I don’t know why we just couldn’t play the game the way you’ve got to play to give yourself a chance to win.”
After rushing for 121 yards and three touchdowns on 29 carries, Iowa junior tailback Shonn Greene accepted the MVP trophy and promptly announced he was leaving for the NFL.
Greene was the only back in the country to rush for 100 yards in 13 games, and finished with single-season school records of 1,850 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns.
“Really, I don’t think there is a lot (more) I can do here,” Greene said. “People talk about the Heisman thing, but I think that’s a lot of politics and I don’t like getting into all that.”
Spurrier hoped Garcia would use a strong showing in the Outback to grab hold of a quarterback job he and Smelley shared after Tommy Beecher bombed in the season opener.
Instead, the Gamecocks enter the offseason with as many questions at quarterback as they had a year ago when Blake Mitchell graduated.
Spurrier said he would try to decide on a quarterback in spring practice, which gives Garcia about three months to get over his homecoming hangover.
“I wish I could play it all over again,” Garcia said in the bowels of Raymond James. “It just wasn’t meant to be.”
Hear Steve Spurrier's postgame comments