On a day he spent running on and off the field, South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia’s last jog out of Williams-Brice Stadium was interrupted by a handshake from an Outback Bowl scout in a tan blazer.
Though Steve Spurrier’s quarterback platoon produced mixed results Saturday, USC’s 34-21 victory against Arkansas moved the Gamecocks a step closer to a New Year’s Day bowl berth, possibly the Outback in Garcia’s hometown of Tampa.
So Garcia, Chris Smelley and the rest of the Gamecocks (7-3, 4-3 in SEC) can learn to live with what Spurrier called his “quarterback shuffle.”
Alternating with Smelley nearly every play, Garcia threw for a touchdown and ran for another but struggled to develop much consistency. The redshirt freshman, who started the previous two games, was 4-of-11 passing for 71 yards and had USC’s lone turnover on a first-quarter interception.
Smelley completed 9 of 19 passes for 148 yards, including a 66-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jared Cook on the Gamecocks’ longest offensive play of the season.
“I thought both quarterbacks played pretty decent all things considered. I wish one of them would play extremely better than the other,” Spurrier said. “I guess Chris was a little bit better statistically, but Stephen did some things in there.”
Spurrier rotated quarterbacks every play several times while at Florida, most famously during a 32-29 victory against Florida State in 1997 with Noah Brindise and Doug Johnson.
He decided during the week to use the same approach against the Razorbacks (4-6, 1-5), and allowed Smelley to start the game and every subsequent offensive series.
“We said we were going to play both of them. Why not just send them in with the play?” Spurrier said. “Stephen can’t get the signals, anyway.”
Asked if he understood Spurrier’s rationale for the two-quarterback system, Garcia said: “Not really. He didn’t really explain it to us, but we didn’t really ask questions, either. We’re not complaining.”
Later, Garcia said he thought Spurrier used the approach to get the plays in quickly and allow the quarterbacks to get “a mental picture of where everybody’s going.”
“It’s unique. You don’t see a lot of guys doing it,” Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said. “I think Spurrier likes it because he gets to talk to them on the sideline and gets to send the play in with them.”
Though both quarterbacks overthrew several receivers, each dismissed the notion that the platoon affected their rhythm and timing. Spurrier wasn’t buying it, either, saying: “We don’t have enough rhythm to worry about right now.”
On his first pass attempt, Garcia hit Kenny McKinley for 30 yards, which moved McKinley past Sterling Sharpe as the Gamecocks’ all-time leader in receiving yardage and set up Garcia’s 14-yard touchdown run two plays later.
Though Garcia misfired on his last six passes of the first half, the Gamecocks took advantage of short fields on their first two drives to grab a 10-0 lead they never relinquished.
USC’s first five scoring drives consumed a total of five minutes, 55 seconds.
But leading by 13 points in the fourth quarter, the Gamecocks put together a 72-yard, touchdown drive in which they ran the ball 11 consecutive times and consumed 6:22 — longer than all of their previous scoring drives combined.
Mike Davis capped it with a 13-yard touchdown that put USC up 34-14 with 6:21 left and brought a smile to the face of offensive line coach John Hunt.
As much as he enjoyed the short fields, Hunt said he told his linemen “let’s one time put ‘em on our backs for a scoring drive and feel good.”
Though Arkansas scored a late touchdown aided by a pair USC pass interference penalties, the Gamecocks’ SEC-leading defense had another good day. USC sacked Razorbacks quarterback Casey Dick six times and knocked tailback Michael Smith, the SEC’s leading rusher, out with a shoulder injury in the first half.
Smith rushed seven times for a season-low 25 yards, 98 yards below his average.
Garcia out-gained Smith on the ground with five carries for 35 yards — not counting all the yards he and Smelley covered taking plays in and out.
“We need to calculate if we logged a few miles running on and off the field there,” Smelley said.
Spurrier would not say whether he planned to stick with the quarterback shuffle next week at Florida. But if it means shuffling off to a Florida bowl game, Garcia is all for it.
“It’s fine with me and Smelley,” said Garcia, who joked with Smelley about the arrangement on the sideline. “It was pretty fun.”