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USC turns the tide on turnovers

South Carolina senior linebacker Eric Norwood scores a touchdown after an interception against Georgia.
South Carolina senior linebacker Eric Norwood scores a touchdown after an interception against Georgia.

With quarterback Stephen Garcia making better decisions and the running backs taking better care of the ball, South Carolina has turned around the turnover problems that plagued the team last season.

The Gamecocks have one turnover in each of their first five games - a dramatic improvement for a team that had four turnovers in a season-opening win against N.C. State in 2008 and finished the season with more interceptions than any school in the country.

USC ranks fifth in the SEC and 28th among 120 teams nationally in turnover margin at plus-4 - a figure comprised of nine takeaways and five turnovers (two interceptions and three fumbles).

Through five games last season, the Gamecocks were 11th in the conference and 109th in the country with a turnover margin of minus-7.

"Heck, we had four (actually three) in the first half of the first game last year, somebody told me. So we have come a long way," USC coach Steve Spurrier said Tuesday. "Turnovers are something that have really helped us win those close games."

Tommy Beecher set the tone for a sloppy season of ball protection last season when he threw four interceptions, including three in the first half, in the win against N.C. State. The giveaways continued throughout the season and into the postseason: Garcia had turnovers on each of the Gamecocks' first four possessions of a 31-10 loss to Iowa in the Outback Bowl.

Spurrier and first-year quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus spent much of the preseason emphasizing to Garcia the importance of sound decision-making and avoiding the temptation to throw careless passes into tight spaces.

The right-hander seems to have received the message. After finishing with more interceptions (eight) than touchdowns (season) last season, Garcia has thrown two picks and has a streak of 115 passes without an interception, dating to the second quarter of the Georgia game.

"A lot of it is (better decisions), and a lot of it is good fortune," Spurrier said of Garcia. "He's still rolled out to the right or left and thrown back inside a couple times and had almost picks. But they weren't picks. But he only did it about once a game. So he is getting better at not doing that ... (and) taking care of the ball a little better."

Spurrier said the Gamecocks' improved rushing attack also has led to fewer turnovers. After averaging 2.9 yards per carry in 2008, the Gamecocks have gained 4.5 yards per rush this season.

That has kept USC out of many of the obvious passing situations when opponents like to blitz and put pressure on the quarterback, forcing hurried throws or causing fumbles on sacks.

"We're not sitting there with second-and-12s quite as often as maybe we were at this time in the past," Spurrier said.

The Gamecocks' nine takeaways are one more than they had after five games last season. The difference has been in avoiding the giveaways that came at a rate of nearly three per game last season.

Spurrier said first-year running backs coach Jay Graham, a former Tennessee tailback, does a ball-security drill with his players.

"I don't know if it is helpful or not," Spurrier said. "We try to hold on to the ball and we try to fall on fumbles correctly, little things like that."

Whatever the reason, the Gamecocks will take it.

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