Embattled Garcia delivers for Gamecocks

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- It was a scene so surreal that you were looking for Hollywood producers lurking around the corner.

There South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier sat in the bowels of Williams-Brice Stadium, his Gamecocks having just ended No. 1-ranked Alabama’s 19-game winning streak with a convincing 35-21 thumping, and the Head Ball Coach was gushing about Stephen Garcia.

Seriously, he was gushing.

“Stephen Garcia played the best he’s ever played,” said Spurrier, who joked that he awarded himself the game ball for moving into sole possession of second place all-time with 107 career SEC-regular season wins.

But in reality, if anybody deserved a game ball Saturday in the aftermath of one of the more glorious fall afternoons in South Carolina football history, it was the embattled Garcia.

After all, the Gamecocks beat the No. 1-ranked team in the country about as often as Spurrier praises Garcia.

“That was Stephen’s best game by far that he has played here at South Carolina,” Spurrier continued.

A few minutes later, Spurrier dished out a few more glowing compliments to the same guy he spent much of the offseason questioning.

Questioning his work ethic. Questioning his focus. Questioning his commitment to being a first-rate quarterback.

He’s the same quarterback Spurrier yanked from the Auburn game two weeks ago in the fourth quarter after back-to-back fumbles. Never mind that Garcia was 15-of-21 for 235 yards and had three touchdowns.

And the same quarterback who’s been maddeningly good at times and maddeningly bad at times throughout his South Carolina career.

On this day, one they’ll remember for a long time to come in Gamecock Country, Garcia was the kind of quarterback you can build championship teams around -- period.

The 6-2, 227-pound junior finished 17-of-20 (a career-best .850 completion percentage) for 201 yards and matched a career high with three touchdown passes. His only interception bounced out of the hands of Alshon Jeffery on what should have been a first-down completion, but Garcia will gladly forgive his favorite target, who was sensational in his own right.

The Alabama defense had no answers for either one most of the game.

“Stephen played sensational today, took care of the ball nicely, handed it off, ran a few times in there and didn’t duck his head,” Spurrier said. “He got all he could, got down, and that’s how you play football. His passes were sensational.

“That corner route Alshon caught, the second touchdown, that was unbelievable. He threw it in the only spot he could possibly throw it, and of course, Alshon made a great catch. But 17 out of 20 against Alabama? This was Stephen’s best day, and hopefully he can build on this.”

Garcia downplayed what a whirlwind ride it’s been for him at South Carolina.

But he certainly hasn’t lost his sense of humor.

Asked about his ability to hang in there mentally despite everything that’s happened and everything that’s been said about him, Garcia said, “Since I’ve been here, I’ve developed some pretty thick skin. That’s all I can really say about that.”

Alabama coach Nick Saban was emphatic after the game that it was South Carolina that won the game and not necessarily the Crimson Tide losing it.

Likewise, he said Garcia’s penchant for standing in there and making plays was a big reason why the Gamecocks did what nobody else has been able to do since the tail end of the 2007 season -- and that’s beat Alabama in an SEC regular-season game.

“Garcia played well and made a lot of good throws,” Saban said. “We got pressure on him and hit him just as he was throwing, and he still made the throws.”

More times than not, Garcia was looking in the direction of Jeffery, who’s quickly making it a three-player argument as to who’s the best receiver in this league.

The 6-4 Jeffery is pushing 230 pounds, has great hands and is an impossible matchup for smaller cornerbacks. But there were times Saturday that he simply ran by Alabama defensive backs and caught the ball even when they were hanging onto his jersey.

“You throw it up to him, and he’s going to come down with it,” Garcia said. “I wouldn’t trade him for anybody.”

Jeffery, who had seven catches for 127 yards and two touchdowns, said it’s as ready as he’s seen this team for a game Saturday.

“We let it get away at Auburn and didn’t finish that game,” Jeffery said. “We weren’t going to let that happen again.”

Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy told Garcia after the game at midfield that he’d see him again in Atlanta in the SEC championship game.

Obviously, that would be a first for the Gamecocks.

But maybe this is shaping up as a season of firsts in Columbia.

Did you hear the way the Head Ball Coach was gushing about Garcia?