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October 3, 2011

Hood: The quarterback quandary



The issue of who should be USC''s starting quarterback is really a two-part question.

The first is SHOULD there be a change? That's followed by WILL there be a change? Those are separate and distinct queries with each requiring a 'yes' answer before Steve Spurrier pulls the trigger and replaces Stephen Garcia with Connor Shaw.

First, a caveat: It might not matter who starts against Kentucky on Saturday because I believe either quarterback is capable of guiding USC to a much-needed win over the woeful Wildcats.

Thus, who starts against Kentucky won't be a true indicator of the future direction at the position, just like it didn't matter Shaw started the opener against East Carolina. It's been Garcia since the second quarter of that game.

Is it possible we could see a two quarterback rotation against UK? Yes. I suspect Spurrier will keep all his options open.

The question Spurrier must answer is which quarterback gives USC a better chance to win on the road in the SEC. After this weekend's home matinee matchup with Kentucky, USC hits the road for three straight games at Mississippi State, Tennessee and Arkansas.

All three places will be loud, proud and hostile. The faint of heart need not apply.

I'll admit to being a Garcia supporter because I always thought he gave USC the best chance to win. However, watching him struggle to complete 9-of-23 passes against arguably the worst pass defense in the SEC has convinced me otherwise.

I overlooked the four-interception performance against Vanderbilt because USC won the game with a tremendous defensive outing. So did Spurrier, as he acknowledged on Sunday that Garcia was going to remain the starter as long as USC kept winning.

But that's no longer the case.

Simply, Garcia is making far too many mistakes begetting his status as a fifth-year senior quarterback. Granted, Garcia has led USC to a number of huge wins in his career, including a pair of victories over Clemson, and last year's upset of top-ranked Alabama.

But, at this point, it looks like the magic we saw in Charlotte and occasionally in the win at Georgia, as well as several instances last season, has disappeared.

In the past two games Garcia has completed 25-of-53 passes (47.2 pct) for 388 yards, two touchdowns and six interceptions. Not good. For the season, Garcia is completing just 51.7 percent of his passes (61-of-118) for 844 yards, four touchdowns and nine interceptions, most among SEC quarterbacks.

So, should Spurrier make a change? Yes.

Now for the more difficult question - will he?

Spurrier must walk a tight rope as he decides which quarterback to start. The way many of the Gamecock players rallied around Garcia following his fifth suspension shows just how popular he remains with his teammates, especially the older players that have been through the wars with him over the last three seasons.

In fact, I have no doubt Garcia's enormous support among his teammates was a major factor is the administration's decision to lift his suspension and allow him to return to the team.

So, does Spurrier make the move to Shaw? The sophomore has barely played since the ECU game, throwing a pair of passes in the Vanderbilt game.

Spurrier has done it before. Long-time Florida pundits will remind you he replaced senior Terry Dean with a little-known sophomore named Danny Wuerffel in 1994. And the rest is history.

In fact, many media scribes who have covered Spurrier for a long time will tell you that he enjoys pitting his quarterbacks against each other as they battle for playing time. But that hasn't happened in the last three years because most of Garcia's would-be challengers have fallen by the wayside.

Does the fact nobody has stepped up and challenged Garcia for the starting job frustrate Spurrier? Yes. Over a year ago, he talked about how the 2009 season was his first as a head coach where he had just one quarterbacks and had to live or die based on how well he performed.

Is Shaw finally the one who can force Garcia to prove he is worthy of remaining in his role as the starting quarterback? Spurrier hopes so.

So, will Spurrier make a change? Based on his comments on Sunday, it appears to be trending in that direction. Spurrier may tell us something Monday night following practice, but I wouldn't be surprised if he waited until his weekly press conference on Tuesday.

If he decides to start Shaw, is it actually an audition for the upcoming three-game road stretch?

But here's another caveat: the identity of the starting quarterback won't mean a darn thing unless USC starts getting better play from the offensive line and the Gamecocks stop committing turnovers at a frantic rate.

When the season started, most analysts thought the offensive line would play at a high level considering how experienced it was at four of the five spots. Only left guard A.J. Cann was younger than a fourth-year player. The starting lineup included a sixth-year senior (Terrence Campbell), two fifth-year seniors (Kyle Nunn and Rokevius Watkins) and a fourth-year junior (TJ Johnson).

That's the kind of experience along the offensive front you need to win in the SEC. But after playing fairly well in the first three games, the O-Line has regressed in the last two weeks.

It might have something to do with Nunn's health. He injured his back in the Navy game and played through the pain against Vanderbilt until finally succumbing this past weekend when he missed the Auburn loss. Sunday, Spurrier said Nunn's back injury was potentially serious.

Major blow if Nunn is out for a significant amount of time? Yes.

USC started true freshman Mike Matulis, giving them two freshmen starters on the left side of the line. The gamble failed as Matulis struggled in his first career start, though it's difficult to blame a true freshman who was basically thrown to the wolves.

Now, USC faces the prospect of trying to get through at least the next few weeks without one of their stalwarts on the offensive line.

But a bigger momentum killer than Nunn's injury could be the high number of turnovers. USC is averaging three turnovers per game and has committed the most in the SEC (15), four more than the second-highest team (Kentucky with 11).

Fortunately, the defense is tied for the SEC lead with 16 takeaways, so USC's turnover margin is plus-one. As a result, the high number of turnovers by the USC offense hasn't become a larger issue. But it could.

And not all of those turnovers have been interceptions, either. Six of the 15 miscues are fumbles, including two by Marcus Lattimore. So, the USC offense needs to keep a better grip on the football along with refraining from throwing it to the other team.

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D. McCallum


Georgia NEWS

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