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October 7, 2011

Cloninger: No controversy here



"It's time to move on,
Time to get going."
--------------------- TOM PETTY

Through seven years of covering Steve Spurrier at this program, I always have "The Week." It's the week where Spurrier is dis-satisfied with his quarterback's play, and re-opens the competition, and there's a quarterback controversy that defines all of the stories for that week. It's a rite of autumn as dependable as your woman wanting to talk about something when Pujols is batting with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth.

I knew it was coming, after Stephen Garcia's miserable performance against Auburn last week. I already had the story shell written before I went to practice on Monday night.

It's a bit different this year. There is no controversy.

There was a change made because it needed to be made.

Connor Shaw will start when South Carolina hosts Kentucky on Saturday, and deservedly so. Garcia, even while padding that "wins as a starter" record that means absolutely nothing, didn't play well in any of the first five games, although he had a couple of good statistical performances. There is nothing physically wrong with the signal-caller, which has Spurrier flummoxed - if it's not physical, it has to be mental, and how is it that a quarterback who has been around for five years, threw for 3,000 yards last season and has two uber-heavy weapons on his side can be so out of it?

The answer to that remains unknown, but it's clear that Garcia's confidence has been lost and his greatest intangible - of inspiring his teammates with gutsy play - has also been mislaid. Spurrier had to make the switch, or else risk losing the team.

So Shaw gets the ball. And everyone from trainer to Spurrier is hoping that he plays well on Saturday, because the alternative - either re-install a struggling Garcia, or have to re-invent the wheel to get the offense unshackled - isn't pleasant.

When Shaw started over Garcia in Week 1, I wrote that it was the wrong move (Here). And it was. You simply don't give someone his first career start over a veteran with Garcia's experience.

Some of you thought that I was criticizing Shaw. I wasn't. I was criticizing his experience, which isn't his fault, and the intangible that Garcia had that Shaw didn't.

As mentioned before, that's inspiring teammates. The Gamecocks' players like Shaw and know he has the tools to be a solid quarterback, but there were many, many times when he came into ballgames that he just didn't have that "it" quality that Garcia had under every fingernail.

Shaw panicked sometimes, running with the ball after seeing his primary receiver covered and not progressing through his checks. Excusable, playing as a freshman in the SEC. Not that his teammates didn't play hard for him, but the others saw a deer-in-the-headlights look on Shaw's face quite a few times. Garcia wouldn't look scared if he was in the path of an oncoming 18-wheeler.

Now, the situation has been reversed. The team knew that Garcia's fearless attitude had become one of fearful reluctance. Shaw needed to start.

It's up to him to take that chance and run with it.

Much of Shaw's performance on Saturday will be dictated by the playbook. Simply, the deep pass hasn't been there all year and it's foolish to think that a change in quarterback will automatically bring it to life. I think it can be there, but the most logical and safe offensive strategy on Saturday is to give the ball to Marcus Lattimore, use a variety of short throws to speed guys and let Shaw become comfortable.

If the Gamecocks get a sizable lead (or shoot, simply have a lead after trailing in the first quarter in every other game this season), then Spurrier can unleash Alshon Jeffery into deep coverage and see if Shaw can hit him. Shaw is confident, his teammates are confident; to wreck that with a poor decision from the sideline brings Shaw right back to widened eyes behind his facemask.

Much depends on Shaw staying away from that look and that reputation as well. When he does throw, short or long, he has to trust his line to block for him so he can check down to his alternate receivers. Difficult to do with one starter out, but that's the way it is.

Shaw puts that all together and simply does what's expected - which is that he doesn't have to win the game by himself, as long as he doesn't lose it - and the Gamecocks can re-claim a season that is teetering on the peak of a mountain. On one side, a return trip to Atlanta. On the other, a return trip to Birmingham or some other low-level bowl game.

Shaw doesn't do that, and the panic button is not only pushed, but shoved through the instrument panel.

It's his turn, and his chance. I honestly can't say if he'll do well or not, although my predictions lately have been right on target. I haven't been able to see him in practice this week and all the notes I have from watching Shaw play in the past are only so relevant.

I'll have my "The Week" files from the past six seasons ready to go, just in case I need them next week.

Hoping I won't.

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