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A changed Garcia makes a big difference for Gamecocks

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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South Carolina's Stephen Garcia runs for a touchdown against East Carolina on Saturday. (US Presswire)  
South Carolina's Stephen Garcia runs for a touchdown against East Carolina on Saturday. (US Presswire)  

CHARLOTTE -- South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia has been faced with a number of challenges during his career. He's racked up five suspensions and his off-the-field exploits are somewhat legendary.

With all of his past missteps, screw-ups and suspensions, Garcia didn't even want to consider where he might have been Saturday night. What turn his life might have taken if he wasn't given another chance to wear the garnet No. 5 jersey.

"Once I was told the conditions [to meet] in order for me to return, I knew I would be able to come back and just get it done," said Garcia, walking with a reporter to the team bus after the Gamecocks' 56-37 win against East Carolina. "Get back on the team at whatever cost. I don't know where I'd be right now if Coach [Steve] Spurrier, [athletic director] Mr. [Eric] Hyman and President Dr. [Harris] Pastides didn't give me the conditions and allow me one more final chance."

Garcia was reinstated to the team last month, but he still had to wait a little bit longer to play because sophomore Connor Shaw beat out the fifth-year senior for the right to start against East Carolina.

Spurrier had said whoever performed better in practice would get the start with the other quarterback entering the game in the second quarter. The better quarterback would play in the second half.

In the first quarter behind Shaw, the Gamecocks didn't score and managed only 69 yards on 21 plays. Shaw was 2 for 8 for 18 yards and fumbled once.

Even though, Shaw struggled, Spurrier said he didn't second-guess his decision to start Shaw.

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"I could be like those other coaches," Spurrier said. "The coach at Notre Dame [Brian Kelly] said it was a very close competition and this guy is our quarterback for the year. I didn't say [Shaw] was our quarterback for the year, I just said he would start the first game.

"When you say you're going to do something, you're supposed to do it, aren't you?"

Garcia told Spurrier, Hyman, Pastides and, more importantly, his teammates, he would make good with his final opportunity. So after meeting all of those conditions to return to the team, Garcia finally trotted onto the Bank of America field with 9:43 remaining in the second quarter. The Gamecocks trailed 17-0.

After everything he had gone through the past few months, having to overcome a 17-point deficit must have been like a piece of cake, right?

"Absolutely," Garcia said, laughing.

Garcia's first pass of his senior year sailed overshot Alshon Jeffrey down the middle by about five yards. Four plays later, though, Garcia was rumbling, bumbling and stumbling 32 yards for a touchdown – the longest run of his career.

"Actually it almost wasn't a touchdown run," Garcia said. "I almost fell over. I felt pretty 'unathletic' on that play but I was able to stay on my feet and score."

With Garcia in the game, the Gamecocks scored, scored and scored some more.

"You could tell their morale came up, their motivation picked up," East Carolina cornerback Derek Blacknall said. "Overall it was a big difference."

During a 28-minute span bridging from the second quarter to the fourth quarter, the Gamecocks outscored East Carolina 49-13.

"Our offense just exploded more in the second half," Jeffrey said.

Garcia played eight series on the night. He led the Gamecocks to six touchdowns and 274 yards of offense. The defense -- Antonio Allen's 25-yard fumble return -- and special teams -- Ace Sanders' 68-yard punt return -- also each contributed a touchdown.

Sophomore tailback Marcus Lattimore carried 23 times for 112 yards and three touchdowns.

Garcia finished 7 for 15 for 110 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 56 yards and two more scores.

"He played well, very well," Spurrier said. "Somebody said give Stephen Garcia the game ball. I said, 'wait a minute, he can play [better] when he throws for about 300 yards and brings us down for [the winning] score, we can give him the game ball.'

"He's back in the box. He's our starter."

Spurrier seemed more impressed with Garcia's grooming efforts than his on the field performance.

"He had a good attitude about it," Spurrier said. "He cleaned up today, shaved up his beard. He decided to act like a quarterback."

Garcia said he had talked to Spurrier and quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus during the week about the beard.

"I had a pretty good beard going," Garcia said. "Him [Spurrier] and Coach Mangus asked me if I was going to shave it, but he's the boss and you have to do what the boss says."

The boss said Garcia would get the start against Georgia next week in a key SEC East Division contest. Garcia said appreciated being able to regain the starting position.

"It was a fun day," Garcia said. "We needed that win for sure -– to comeback and win. I'm very thankful [to get the start]. Me and Connor talked about it. He's now officially 1-0 as a starter."

So Shaw got the win and Garcia got the save. And by South Carolina deciding to give Garcia one last opportunity, Garcia has a chance to earn another save -- saving his career.

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