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October 1, 2011

Offense again flounders



The horseshoe finally fell off, and South Carolina's previously perfect record hit the ground with it.

The No. 10 Gamecocks lost their first game on Saturday, 16-13 to Auburn, and went into the cooling Columbia air knowing that while only one loss, the potential for disaster looms just around the next corner. The Gamecocks (4-1, 2-1 SEC) spoke all week about how they knew they weren't playing terrifically, especially on offense, but at the end of the day and the struggles, they were still undefeated.

Not anymore. And with the way the offense performed on Saturday, USC is back to trying to find answers and repair problems before the next game, knowing that another game like this and its entire dream season may swirl down the drain.

"We made them look like about the best defense in the league most of the night," coach Steve Spurrier said. "We need to make some changes, but we won't know until we watch the tape."

One of those changes may have to be to fifth-year senior quarterback Stephen Garcia, who again struggled to be consistent on Saturday. Garcia, who was not made available to the media afterward, was 9-of-23 for 160 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions, raising his total to four touchdowns and nine picks this year.

Spurrier has doggedly stuck by Garcia, although he has thrown six interceptions over the past two games, and the time seems to have come to at least re-open the quarterback competition. Garcia hooked up with Alshon Jeffery for a pretty 50-yard touchdown strike, but otherwise seemed scared and hesitant to throw.

That, combined with the offensive line's inability to open holes against a defense that had allowed an average 226 rushing yards per game coming in, short-circuited Marcus Lattimore's abilities. As the Gamecocks found out last year, without Lattimore, they do not function well.

USC had 289 yards of offense, with Lattimore rushing for 66. He was bottled at the line as Auburn (4-1, 2-0 SEC) did what it diagrammed USC to do - the Gamecocks can't pass, so stuff the line and a team should be fine.

It worked. The Gamecocks ran 52 plays, while Tigers tailback Michael Dyer had 41 carries by himself. Until the frantic final drive, the Gamecocks ran one play in Auburn's half of the field.

Garcia seems to have none of the confidence and moxie that has defined his tenure, despite having weapons like Lattimore and Jeffery around him. With Spurrier promising changes, perhaps this is the week where it happens.

The offensive line really doesn't have the luxury of making changes, with freshmen playing behind the starters. No one's going to replace Jeffery or Lattimore, along with the rest of the receivers; Garcia's position seems to be shaky at best.

But Spurrier has kept backup Connor Shaw almost completely off the field since he started the season-opener, throwing his support behind Garcia. To re-open the competition now may be solely dependent on how well Shaw will take it.

It also may be that Garcia lights it up in practice this week, although he will miss at least Thursday's practice so he can attend his grandfather's funeral. Spurrier again has decisions to make, and the Gamecocks again have an uncertain future to stare into.

"We just have to keep getting better," Lattimore said. "The defense is doing what they need to do. It's just the offense. We have to pick it up."

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