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Commentary: Avoiding collapse is job No. 1

IN THE BOWELS OF Neyland Stadium late Saturday night, South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia and receiver Moe Brown huddled to discuss what they could do to make sure this season does not go the way of the previous two.

Their solution: Pick up the practice pace.

Coming off the practice field Wednesday evening, defensive tackle Ladi Ajiboye volunteered that the Gamecocks had not had a great practice. Brown thought the execution was OK, but the tempo was lacking.

Did that lead to the sometimes lethargic effort in the 31-13 loss to Tennessee that dropped USC out of the rankings?

Well, the two fumbles in the first five offensive snaps probably took more air out of the balloon than anything that happened, or didn't happen, last week along Bluff Road.

But as the Gamecocks venture deeper into the Orange Crush portion of their schedule, Brown and Garcia plan to set a faster clip to keep the one-week funk from turning into something worse.

"We're going to make sure everybody's going to the ball, running to the ball, chasing the ball. Your practice translates to the field, and (Saturday) it showed," Brown said. "That's something we've got to address. It ain't going to be happening no more this season."

Garcia plans to be a little more vocal.

"We're going to start getting on guys. We've just got to pick up the tempo, and that's what it's going to take to beat Arkansas," Garcia said. "We can beat anybody. It's just very frustrating - for not only me, but the whole team - when you come out here and fumble twice and they score two touchdowns right off the bat."

Garcia was responsible for the last two of the Gamecocks' season-high four turnovers. But the right-hander completed 50 percent of his passes and, despite wet conditions, had his second consecutive 300-yard passing game.

The Tennessee game was Garcia's 12th career start - the equivalent of a full season. And for the first time since he arrived at USC, Garcia talked about becoming more of a leader.

"I definitely think I need to," he said.

USC coach Steve Spurrier said the practice tempo has never been to the level he would like.

"It wasn't that much different from what we normally do," Spurrier said Sunday. "The effort level on the field (Saturday) night by a few was questionable."

This is about the time when the Gamecocks' chemistry disintegrated last season. Safety Emanuel Cook had all but checked out of college with an eye on the NFL, and Spurrier thought a couple of other players were more concerned about their draft status than preparing for Florida and Clemson.

This team appears to have a stronger core. The Gamecocks are 4-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less and seems to have bought into the "new Carolina" motto.

That said, there were times Saturday when players looked like the game could not end fast enough (rewind your DVR to Chris Culliver's lackadaisical "tackle" of Montario Hardesty in the third quarter).

Culliver also whiffed on a tackle attempt on Hardesty's first-half touchdown run.

"His tackling effort was not good enough," Spurrier said of Culliver. "So we're going to try to address that the next day or two."

But not everyone in the USC locker room agreed with Brown's assertion that uninspired practices were to blame for the Gamecocks' worst loss of the year.

"Truthfully, I don't agree with that. We just didn't play well," said linebacker and captain Eric Norwood, who also shrugged off a question about the need for team leaders to assert themselves.

"It's going to come down to making plays," Norwood said. "You can have leadership all day, but if you don't make plays ..."

As was the case two years ago, the Gamecocks will head to Arkansas with one of their best defensive players banged-up.

Former cornerback Captain Munnerlyn played just a couple of snaps in that 48-36 loss to the Razorbacks. That was the night Darren McFadden tied an SEC single-game record with 323 rushing yards against the Gamecocks.

Defensive end Cliff Matthews will miss at least one game after dislocating his shoulder against the Vols, sidelining one of the team's highest-energy players during a week when Brown and Garcia want to speed things up.

But if this is a new Carolina, USC will find a way to overcome the Matthews injury and win games down the stretch.

Otherwise, it will be a familiar ending to another promising season.

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