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October 5, 2011

Re-scaled offense can give Shaw his chance



Connor Shaw was expectedly named starting quarterback for Saturday's game hosting Kentucky, and nobody could question the switch. Stephen Garcia has done nothing through the first five games to merit another chance and Steve Spurrier's long-standing line has been that if the first guy isn't playing well, put in the guy behind him.

The sense of foreboding that hovered after the switch was slight, but real. Shaw was put in because No. 18 South Carolina's offense is in neutral, and Garcia couldn't work the gearshift. Now, if Shaw can't do it …

But that is a question for another day. As Spurrier said on Monday, this week was about getting Shaw ready to play on Saturday, and giving him the keys to be successful.

"We're just going to go give him a chance to go play the game, make good decisions," Spurrier said on Tuesday. "He doesn't have to try to win the game for us. But Connor needs to just take care of the ball, make smart decisions, throw it to our guys, take off running every now and then, hand it off, and we think he's capable."

What that involves, from coaching staff to Shaw, is to re-style the offense so it has a chance to be successful. It's clear that the downfield passing game is non-existent, so the Gamecocks have to start with and continue to use the short game, and then get the running game back on track.

USC (4-1, 2-1 SEC) did that against Auburn. The first offensive play of the game was a 4-yard bubble screen from Garcia to Alshon Jeffery. Over the next few series, Garcia found Jeffery again in the middle of the field, and also a 14-yard catch-and-run to Brandon Wilds. Lattimore was getting held up at the line, but then Garcia got what he wanted - Jeffery going deep with one-on-one coverage.

He arched the pass and Jeffery went up with Auburn's T'Sharvan Bell on his hip, caught the ball, corralled it with his right hand and used the left to shove Bell down into his footprints. Touchdown, 50 yards, just like old times.

And what could have been the other shoe dropping.

It seemed as if the Gamecocks' play-calling was assuming that the passing struggles of the first five weeks were cured after that one throw. The slants and screens disappeared as Garcia kept trying to find the sideline routes, often chunking the ball well over his intended receiver's head, and when Damiere Byrd sprinted downfield on a route that everybody in the stadium saw coming, Garcia threw deep again - and saw it intercepted five yards and to the left of where the ball was supposed to end up.

No confidence or results in the passing game, and the running game suffered. Auburn, knowing all it had to do was stick close to the line, continued to wrap Lattimore and chase Garcia down when he dropped back.

"We maybe had a few scramble plays that we wish we could have hit," Garcia said in a statement after the game (he was not made available). "We just didn't make the plays tonight."

Shaw had problems hitting the deep pass in his most significant action this year, the first quarter of the season-opener, so it seems that the best chance to get in gear against the Wildcats will be to start as the Gamecocks did against Auburn - throw short. The offensive line, coaches are hoping, will band together enough to get Lattimore open for a few chain-moving runs, which can help open up the passing game, and when the long pass appears, Shaw can be green-lit to throw it.

Shaw has been known as a gutsy runner, able to take a hit and keep going. His main drawback is running too quickly - often on pass routes, he drops back, sees his primary receiver covered and takes off. While the passing game is in limbo right now, it probably wouldn't be good to have a route on where Shaw will be checking down to multiple receivers anyway, but everyone knows that Spurrier will eventually lose patience and want to throw it deep.

Building Shaw's confidence is paramount, which can be constructed using the short pass and getting Lattimore unchecked. This is the same team that Lattimore shredded in the first half of last year's game, except with a worse defense. It's another chance for USC to get better and get Shaw firmly established.

Because if he doesn't …

But that is a question for another day.

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