CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Stephen Garcia succeeded coming off the bench for South Carolina. Getting off coach Steve Spurrier's short leash is another matter.
Garcia ran for two touchdowns and threw for another to rally the 12th-ranked Gamecocks past East Carolina 56-37 on Saturday after sitting out the first quarter and South Carolina trailing 17-0.
"I don't know if this was my best game as a Gamecock, but we needed this win, for sure," the fifth-year senior said, "especially for us to come back and win after that first quarter."
The performance earned Garcia back his starting job, which he had the previous 28 games before this, when South Carolina opens the Southeastern Conference season at Georgia. But it didn't earn him too much praise from Spurrier, famously hard on his quarterbacks.
Spurrier didn't second guess his choice of starting sophomore Connor Shaw and expected Garcia to play better than he did against the Pirates.
No game ball for Garcia from the Ball Coach.
"I said, 'Wait a minute. When he throws for about 300 yards and brings us down the field scoring at the end of the game,'" Spurrier said. "He played well. But hopefully, he'll have a big, big game."
Some might say Garcia's had several through the years, including his three-touchdown, 17-of-20 showing last season in a 35-21 upset of top-ranked Alabama. Spurrier has crowed often of last year's milestone of beating Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and Florida all in the same season -- and all with Garcia as starter.
"The offense just responded to Stephen better," said Ace Sanders, who caught Garcia's lone touchdown pass.
Marcus Lattimore added 112 yards rushing and three TDs.
Garcia was the steadying hand after a butter-fingers first quarter that featured three Gamecocks fumbles, two of which led to East Carolina scores. With Garcia back under center, the offense started to click and South Carolina took control of the season opener.
Garcia had a 32-yard touchdown run his first series and when Lattimore finished the Gamecocks next drive with a 4-yard scoring run, South Carolina fans at Bank of America Stadium began chanting Garcia's name in celebration.
Spurrier said Garcia would start the Gamecocks' Southeastern Conference opener at Georgia next week. "Yeah, he's back in the box," the coach said.
Dominique Davis threw for 260 yards and four touchdowns for the Pirates, but when South Carolina wasn't stopping itself, the Pirates had no answers. The Gamecocks outscored ECU 42-13 in second half.
Garcia opened the second half with a with a 3-yard TD pass to Sanders and put the Gamecocks ahead for good moments later, 28-24, with a 1-yard touchdown run.
Garcia threw for 3,059 yards and 20 TDs last year and was a big reason the team played in the Southeastern Conference title game as Eastern Division champs. But Garcia was suspended twice this spring, upping his career total to five at South Carolina, something that's irked Spurrier to no end.
So the Gamecocks coach put the ball in Shaw's hands, saying the sophomore who'd thrown just 33 college passes had outperformed Garcia throughout the summer.
Garcia left no doubt who the better passer was in this one as the Gamecocks won their 12th straight season opener. Spurrier improved to 42-0 against schools outside the BCS automatic qualifying conferences.
"Stephen's a fine quarterback," East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill said. "He led them to the division championship."
Any South Carolina streaks of success looked in danger during an awful first half. The Gamecocks, with their best preseason ranking ever, certainly didn't look ready for the national spotlight.
Even Lattimore -- who's lone college fumble came when he was knocked cold in the Chick-fil-A Bowl last December -- couldn't escape the miscues, getting the ball stripped from his grasp to lead to East Carolina's first touchdown on a 25-yard pass to Justin Hardy.
East Carolina was back at it a series later, Davis tossing a 19-yard scoring throw to Lance Lewis for a 14-0 lead. When the Pirates tacked on a field goal following a fumbled kickoff by Kenny Miles, South Carolina was down 17-0 and in serious need of a familiar face at the controls.
Enter Garcia, who despite his troubles had the most passing yards of any returning SEC quarterback. He quickly showed that he has learned a thing or two under Spurrier.
"Someone on the sideline told me you can't win it in one drive," Garcia said. "Just take it one drive at a time."
Garcia found Lattimore for a 20-yard completion, then broke free on a 32 yard TD run, the longest of his time at South Carolina, to give the Gamecocks some offensive life. Garcia hit Alshon Jeffery on a 22-yard pass the next series, which ended with the first of Lattimore's scoring runs.
Garcia was 7 of 15 for 110 yards in three quarters of work.
East Carolina had hoped to tap into its curious history against South Carolina. The teams last met in 1999, the Pirates won 21-3 in Columbia as Hurricane Floyd flooded camps. East Carolina remainied in town the following week, training at a local high school in preparation for one of the biggest wins in school history -- a 27-23 victory over then ninth-ranked Miami.
McNeill showed his players tape of that game this week as the campus was closed for two days because of last weekend's Hurricane Irene.
But those Pirates had 30 NFL draft picks including Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback David Garrard. This group gave up the most yards per game in the Football Bowl Subdivision last season and they couldn't hold together against the Gamecocks.
The game also marked the debut of highly touted defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, the nation's top college prospect who signed with the Gamecocks. Clowney was credited with seven tackles, third most for South Carolina.