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September 30, 2011
Cloninger: Grounds under repair
"Two of us riding nowhere."
--------------------- THE BEATLES
South Carolina let a perfect chance to improve slip away last week, although the No. 10 Gamecocks still claimed a victory. With defenseless Auburn coming to Columbia on Saturday, a bad Kentucky team on deck and then games at struggling Mississippi State and next-year's-team Tennessee afterward, this week's game offers another chance to improve.
What needs the most improvement isn't the passing game or passing defense, USC's two biggest areas of concern through the first four games, although the passing offense will see a difference when this gets better.
The most crucial task facing the Gamecocks is improving the relationship between Steve Spurrier and Stephen Garcia.
Don't get me wrong - the relationship is neither frosty nor poisonous. It isn't all smiles and fishing trips, either. It is, to use one of Spurrier's favorite expressions, what it is.
Spurrier refuses to criticize his quarterback, saying that every time he mentions even a slight area where Garcia needs to improve, it's taken as a slam. He even supported Garcia after one of the senior's worst career games last week, where he threw four interceptions, three of them completely inexcusable.
He has barely spoken one word about backup Connor Shaw, the Game 1 starter who has only seen garbage time since. Even though Garcia has been below-par since he rode in to save the day against East Carolina, there has not been one peep from the coach about even potentially re-starting the annual quarterback competition.
Still, there is a problem. After four full years in the program and coming off a 3,000-yard season, Garcia should be easily directing the offense and padding statistics that will leave him as one of the most productive QBs in school history. With so many weapons around him, it's the perfect season for Garcia to be a senior - all he has to do is not lose the game.
He hasn't, but his statistics - three touchdowns, seven interceptions and an almost complete inability to hit a deep pass - are not helping to win the game.
"Well, we're hoping Stephen's confidence will gain as the week progresses," Spurrier said earlier this week. "Obviously, at the end of the last game, it wasn't very good. But we're going to start Stephen, Stephen's going to start the game and hopefully finish the game. We're going to try to put him in position where he can play well."
I do not believe the relationship between the two is broken beyond repair, but there is something hinky when Spurrier will not say Garcia played badly, even when true, and will not go to his usual standard - playing the next guy when the first is not playing well. Garcia was understandably hurt by the decision to start Shaw in Game 1, and has said that there is no problem between he and the coach, but one has to wonder.
Garcia is the best option for the Gamecocks to win. But when the field general is having a bad day, there needs to be a switch. Even it's for a quarter or a game (Garcia was mercifully yanked after his fourth pick last week), don't keep putting a struggling player who can change the game's momentum for the worse back into the game.
We've all seen Spurrier ride his quarterbacks to success, but sometimes, each signal-caller reaches a point where he stops listening. Spurrier has softened his public blows to his quarterbacks, but with he and Garcia, there is still an unknown part of the bridge that requires mending.
Spurrier obviously has a way he wants his offense to look, and that takes away from Garcia's best ability - the intangible to make something happen and often succeed. Spurrier let Syvelle Newton do that and Garcia has had plenty of those moments, but this season, save for his sprint for the season's first touchdown against East Carolina, they have not appeared.
Garcia is at his peak as the gunslinger, but that often gets him in trouble. He still seems to possess a bit of high-school mentality, that he can make that play despite everyone telling him he shouldn't try. Spurrier is right to try and curb that and stay in the playbook, since the man knows a few things about quarterbacking and offense and simply wants his team to reflect that knowledge.
There may not be a happy medium between the two. And it may be that Garcia can continue playing like he is and the Gamecocks can keep winning. It won't be comfortable or look pretty, but it will leave a W on the schedule.
It only seems that if a compromise can be reached, to let Garcia be a little bit more of the wild man while continuing to run most of the plays that Spurrier calls, the Gamecocks will be much better off. And there is no doubt that nothing soothes a contentious sports relationship like winning, and looking good while doing it.
One of my favorite moments of last year was when the Gamecocks were about to run out the clock on their first SEC East championship, at Spurrier's old stomping grounds. The coach allowed himself to be doused with Gatorade, shrugging the ice off his shoulders and flashing that trademark smirk, just as a gleeful Garcia reached both arms around Spurrier and hugged him.
That moment can be seen again, perhaps on a different field, but in the same championship scenario. Each player in the drama knows that.
And in this season of promise, there is no take two.
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