COLUMBIA – South Carolina has not won back-to-back bowl games since the Outback Bowls after the 2000 and 2001 seasons, when the Gamecocks defeated Ohio State in both games. The second Outback Bowl was actually USC’s third straight bowl victory, including the 1994 Carquest Bowl. Before the 1994 season, USC was 0-8 in bowl games.
USC coach Steve Spurrier is 2-4 in bowl games with the Gamecocks, including last year’s win over Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl. As he prepares for the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl against Michigan, Spurrier knows the importance of the game, and not just because a victory would tie last season’s program-best 11-2 record.
So he isn’t worrying about things like the potential presence of former quarterback Stephen Garcia at USC’s bowl practices. The Gamecocks travel next Wednesday to Tampa, Fla., and will practice Thursday through Sunday at Jefferson High, Garcia’s alma mater. He returned to the Tampa area last season after being kicked off the team six games into his senior year.
“If he comes by (practice), that’s fine,” Spurrier said. “We’re not too concerned about anything except trying to get our guys ready to play the best we can. Everybody talks about your last game of the season. We’ve had some stinker bowl games, and we’re going to try our best not to have another stinker.”
USC’s two biggest bowl stinkers under Spurrier came after the 2008 and 2009 seasons – a 31-10 loss to Iowa in the Outback Bowl and a 20-7 loss to Connecticut in the PapaJohns.com Bowl.
As for his current quarterback situation, Spurrier plans to start Connor Shaw, his starter all year, and play Dylan Thompson at some point in the first half. Shaw missed the regular season finale win at Clemson with a sprained left foot, and Thompson excelled in his place.
“Connor Shaw is healthy,” Spurrier said after Wednesday’s practice. “He was running around the best he has in probably a month or so. So he’s all set to start the game.”
RAVE REVIEWS FOR WARD: It’s easy to forget that Lorenzo Ward had been a defensive coordinator before this season, his first in that role for USC. In 1998 and 1999, he coordinated Tennessee-Chattanooga’s defense. But running a Southeastern Conference defense is obviously different. Ward, who was previously USC’s defensive backs coach, has proven capable so far.
“I think he’s developing into one of the best defensive coordinators in college ball,” Spurrier said. “He’s developing into it. He’s only done it one year. As we all know, you’ve got to do it over and over again.”
Last season under coordinator Ellis Johnson, USC ranked No. 3 nationally in total defense (267.7 yards allowed per game), No. 2 against the pass and No. 45 against the run. This season the Gamecocks are No. 12 in total defense (312.3 yards), No. 17 against the pass and No. 15 against the run. They are allowing 119 rushing yards per game, 17 fewer than last year.
A big key for USC was getting pressure with only its defensive linemen, as it did last season. But USC has 40 sacks this season, nine more than last year. USC’s “rabbits” package of four defensive ends in the game at the same time, usually on third down, was phenomenal at times.
In the package, backup ends Chaz Sutton and Aldrick Fordham enter the game to join Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor, and starting tackles Kelcy Quarles and Byron Jerideau leave. Because of the package’s speed in pass-rushing situations, Ward didn’t need to bring as much pressure with other defenders as he thought he would have to before the season.
“When you saw the way we used the rabbits package on third down, we feel like we didn’t have to bring pressure all the time,” he said. “We probably would’ve had to bring more if we didn’t come up with that particular package. But we really didn’t have to blitz that much. We ran a lot more zone pressures than we probably did a season ago on running downs. But as far as all-out blitzes, we probably called three or four the whole season.”
POSITIVE RETURNS FROM EXAMS: Occasionally before a bowl game, a team will lose players to academic ineligibility. But on Wednesday, two days after USC’s final exams ended, Spurrier said he believed all of his players emerged from the first semester still eligible.
“I don’t think we’ll have any casualties academically,” he said.