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September 12, 2011
When crunch time arrived in Athens, Stephen Garcia knew what South Carolina had to do - give the ball to Marcus Lattimore.
The sophomore responded with 94 yards and one touchdown on 13 carries over the final 15 minutes, lifting USC to a thrilling 45-42 shootout victory over Georgia in front of more than 92,000 fans at Sanford Stadium.
And no one appreciates Lattimore's efforts more than Garcia, who simply had to turn and hand off to Lattimore for most of the final frame.
"We got Latt involved and the line was doing some great blocking," Garcia said. "That's what we conditioned for the whole summer and it paid off for us in the fourth quarter."
The win was Garcia's second straight over Georgia, and helped erase the painful memories of a 41-37 loss two years ago.
He improved his overall career record to 18-13, including a 7-3 mark against USC's four biggest rivals - Georgia (2-1), Florida (1-1), Tennessee (2-1) and Clemson (2-0).
"It feels great," said Garcia, who served as a team captain for the first time in his career. "We're in some pain right now but it was worth it. It was a nail-biting game. It was much needed. It was unbelievable. Aaron Murray had a great game. They have a pretty good offense. But our defense and special teams had touchdowns. That's all that really matters right now."
Garcia needs six more wins to match Todd Ellis for most career victories at USC.
Just like the Sept. 3 opener, Garcia's passing statistics against Georgia won't win any Offensive Player of the Week honors, but he connected on some key passes when he had to, including a clutch 8-yard slant to Alshon Jeffery on fourth down to keep a go-ahead scoring drive alive in the fourth quarter.
"We've been working on that double-slant play all week long," Garcia said. "He's a big target, so I just threw it up in the air and he made a great catch for a first down. We needed that, big-time. We have a lot of plays designed to go to Alshon. That's just the way it worked. He gets open and makes plays."
For the game, Garcia was 11-of-25 for 142 yards and one touchdown, a nice 34-yard connection to Jeffery midway through the second quarter. He also scrambled eight yards up the middle for a TD after USC had returned a fumble to the 5-yard line. Georgia jumped offside on the play, but Garcia kept going and scored his third rushing touchdown of the year.
"I saw them jump (offside), but I didn't really take anything from it except trying to get into the end zone," Garcia said. "Lattimore had a good block on the linebacker and it was pretty clear sailing through there."
Garcia agreed that the three-point win might have been the most bizarre for USC since he joined the program in 2007.
But Garcia isn't apologizing considering the importance on the SEC East race of going into Sanford Stadium and emerging with a critical victory in the annual early-season border battle.
"It was meant to be for us. It was our day to win," Garcia said. "A win is a win. It doesn't really matter how it happens. At the end of the year, it's a win."
In the early going, Garcia was missing high and completed just 3-of-10 passes in the first quarter. Garcia contended his early struggles were more the product of Georgia's strategy than nervousness on his part.
"It looked they had some guys playing underneath the curl, so I wanted to try to get it over their head," Garcia said. "Hopefully, we can practice that and get better at it."
USC's offensive game plan in the second half focused on the run. In 32 snaps, Garcia threw just seven passes in the second half, completing four for 54 yards.
Through two games, Garcia is 18-of-40 passing (45 percent) for 252 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Because of Lattimore, 63.4 percent of USC's yards in the first two games have come on the ground, hence coach Steve Spurrier's statement on Sunday that USC has become a running team.
"It's a great feeling because it takes a lot of pressure off our backs," Garcia said. "Just hand him the ball and he makes people miss and breaks tackles and eats the clock up, which is what we needed to do."
After maneuvering USC to a field goal for a 31-28 lead, Garcia responded to a UGa touchdown by directing a six-play, 79-yard drive for a touchdown and a 35-31 lead with 3:28 left.
Moments after a pass interference call on Georgia gave USC a first down, Garcia completed a 30-yard pass to Ace Sanders to the UGa 38. Lattimore did the rest, racing 36 yards to the 2-yard line before powering into the end zone two plays later.
The long completion to Sanders was important for another reason - Garcia has now surpassed 7,000 career passing yards. He will enter the Navy game with 7,005 yards on 546 career completions.
"Latt had some good runs and I hit Ace on that little scramble play over there," Garcia said. "It ended up working out. It's kind of a blur right now. That was just a big win for us. I have a little headache right now."
As one of several fifth-year seniors on the team, Garcia must help to assure the Gamecocks don't suffer a letdown against Navy on Saturday (6 p.m., ESPN2) in the home opener.
"Being a senior on the team, I just have to keep the guys focused and see the big picture," Garcia said. "This was a big win for us. This is the first time we've beaten Georgia in consecutive years since 2001. We're pretty high right now, but we know we have to stay focused. Navy has a pretty good offense."
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