Garcia sees finest hour after big USC win

Scott Hood,

Thankfully, South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia doesn't listen to sports talk show host Paul Finebaum and others of his ilk.

Garcia silenced his critics with possibly the most impressive performance of his three-year career on Saturday when he completed an astonishing 17-of-20 passes for 201 yards and three touchdowns in the breathtaking upset of previously No. 1-ranked Alabama. 

Considering the quality of the defense he worked against, it's difficult to imagine anything Garcia has accomplished in past games topping that.

While Finebaum, who described Garcia as the worst third-year starting QB in the history of the SEC during an interview on a national radio show on Friday, might refuse to recognize the authenticity of the latter's performance when he returns to the airwaves on Monday. Others will take the high road.

And give credit where it's due.

"Stephen was ready to play," USC head coach Steve Spurrier told reporters Sunday during his weekly teleconference. "He was mentally sharp. We told him this is your game. We don't tell the quarterback you're going to get jerked if you do something wrong. Connor (Shaw) is a good player who's ready to play, but we feel Stephen's experience should be a factor. 

"Yesterday, he threw the ball extremely well. We got some balls in there by inches. There weren't a lot of wide-open guys against Alabama. He had to throw the ball very accurately and put it in some small spaces for our receivers to catch it." 

National recognition started pouring in less than 24 hours following the conclusion of the game when Garcia was selected as the national Offensive Player of the Week by the Walter Camp Football Foundation.

In addition, Garcia is one of four players under consideration for the Capital One Cup

Impact Performance of the Week. USC fans can vote for the redshirt junior at

Garcia, who made his 21st career start, had the highest single game completion percentage (.850) since joining the Gamecocks in 2007 and matched his career high for TD tosses.

"It couldn't have come at a better time playing against the number one team," Garcia said. "The crowd was really into it and I thought we responded unbelievably well to the questions that were asked about us and asked of me. I thought Coach Spurrier called a great game. We devised a pretty good game plan for them and we executed it better than any game plan in a while."

For the season, Garcia is completing a remarkable 72.3 percent of his passes (73-for-101) for 944 yards, eight touchdowns and only three interceptions. His completion percentage ties him with Alabama's Greg McElroy for first among SEC regular signal-callers.

Garcia was aided by outstanding protection from the USC offensive line. The Gamecocks allowed only one sack compared to seven of McElroy by the USC defense. 

"Shawn Elliott is the best offensive line coach I've ever had. His guys played the best they've ever played," Spurrier said Sunday on his weekly TV highlights show.

Garcia added: "They did an unbelievable job. I can't say enough about the way the O-Line has played. They were poised throughout the whole game. They didn't let any of Alabama's blitzes confuse them. I only got sacked once and that's pretty good against a defense like Alabama's." 

Garcia completed all nine of his first-half passes for 94 yards in directing USC to a 21-9 halftime lead. He was 4-for-4 for 41 yards on USC's opening seven-play, 63-yard drive that culminated with his 9-yard TD pass to Marcus Lattimore.

"We've been talking about (beating Alabama) for two weeks," Garcia said. "Coach Spurrier said give fate a chance. We did and we hung in there. We responded to every score they has with a score of our own. I think that's what won us the game." 

USC turned to the run, as well as some Garcia magic, on its second drive of the drive. On fourth-and-2 from the UA 33, Garcia sidestepped a couple of would-be Tide tacklers and scampered seven yards for a first down.

It was a moment reminiscent of his frolic through the Florida defense last year when he also picked up a first down. 

Moments later, he threw a perfect pass to Alshon Jeffery, who outfought a Alabama defensive back and gobbled up the ball for a spectacular TD reception in the final minute of the first quarter.

It was the first of seven receptions on the day for the Calhoun County product. But it wasn't his best catch of the day. That would come later on USC's final TD drive when he made a sensational one-handed grab while being well covered by an Alabama defensive back.

Garcia and the USC offense quickly converted a fumble recovery at the US 43 into six points when Garcia calmly threw a 15-yard TD pass to Jeffery, who beat his defender by a step and caught the ball in stride about five yards deep into the end zone.

"We just told ourselves to keep fighting in the second half and approach it like it was 0-0," Garcia said. "We wanted to play better in the second half and not turn the ball over. It was a great team victory for us."

Garcia was 8-of-11 passing for 107 yards in the second half. Of course, things didn't start well in the third quarter when the first snap sailed through Garcia's hands and rolled towards the USC end zone. Rather than risk fumbling again and giving Alabama possession inside the red zone, Garcia calmly tossed the ball through the end zone for a safety (technically, it's a fumble).

"I should have caught the snap, though it was a little hard and high," Garcia said. "But T.J. (Johnson) played an unbelievable game. Once the ball bounced and I caught it, I wasn't sure if somebody was behind me and I didn't want to fumble. So I just threw it out of the back of the end zone. I think it hit the goalpost, actually. They told me that was my first incompletion of the game." 

But Garcia and the USC offense redeemed itself later in the third quarter when they responded to a Tide field goal that brought the visitors to within 21-14 with an impressive 15-play, 82-yard scoring drive. 

The march, USC's longest of the game, consumed 7:55 off the clock and concluded with a one-yard scoring plunge by Marcus Lattimore with 1:42 left in the third quarter.

Garcia was 5-of-6 for 39 yards during the drive as Spurrier turned mainly to short passes. Brian Maddox rushed four times for 28 yards as well.

Garcia capped the finest afternoon of his career by guiding USC on a 10-play, 74-yard drive for the final score of the afternoon. Forty-five of those yards came on the one-handed catch-and-run by Jeffery down to the UA 6.

"He catches everything," Garcia said. "I'm not sure what happened on the interception, but he made up for it with the one-handed catch he took for 45 yards. That was a game-changer right there. You take say enough about Alshon. I told him I loved throwing to him."

Garcia improved to 12-9 as a starter, including am 11-2 mark at home. He'll take a 1-5 road mark (0-2 on neutral field) to Kentucky this Saturday looking to perform as well in opposing stadiums as he has at Williams-Brice Stadium.

"Since I've been here, I've developed some pretty thick skin," Garcia said. "That's all I can say about that."

Garcia pushed his career passing total to 4,638 yards, moving him to within striking range (258 yards) of Bobby Fuller for seventh place on USC's all-time pass list.

With Alabama disposed of, Garcia and the offense will start preparing for Kentucky on Monday.

"Coach Spurrier said after the Auburn loss that all of our team goals were still out there," Garcia said. "We just have to play well like this every week. Monday, it's all about Kentucky."

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