COLUMBIA -- When Stephen Garcia cut back toward the middle of the field Saturday night at Charlotte's Bank of America Stadium, all he could see was green grass and the end zone.
He accelerated past the line of scrimmage and nearly stumbled inside the 10-yard line, cradling the ball like a newborn baby as he crossed the goal line. He bowed his head briefly, pumped a fist and looked to the heavens.
For all that has happened to Garcia over the last nine months -- the suspension, the criticism, the public outrage, the apologies, the regret, the benching -- those 32 yards provided redemption and an amount of closure for the embattled fifth-year quarterback, who sparked a rally from a 17-point deficit in a 56-37 win over East Carolina.
"There was definitely a sense of relief," Garcia said about the longest TD run of his collegiate career. "The main focus was just getting the team back in the game and getting on the scoreboard. That was really the main focus. But yeah, sure there was that sense of relief after that touchdown."
This is a different Stephen Garcia than the one Gamecocks fans have seen over the past four years. He appears more mature. He demonstrates more accountability to his
teammates and coaching staff. He says he accepts responsibility for his actions on and off the field.
Garcia is rarely made available to reporters during the week, but he was relaxed and focused as he answered questions during Tuesday's news conference.
It's part of his new public image, a makeover of sorts, that begins with his clean-shaven face.
"We've been asking him to shave for five years," said South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier. "Sometimes he does, sometimes he doesn't. I think a quarterback should be shaven, but that's just my opinion."
Garcia had no problem putting razor to face before the pregame meal on Saturday.
"Coach (Spurrier) asked me to shave," Garcia said. "I didn't have a problem with it. I'm going to keep it the way it is. I'm not the boss -- you gotta do what the boss asks you to do."
Garcia had his streak of 28 consecutive starts snapped Saturday night against East Carolina. While some in the media and on message boards viewed Connor Shaw's start as punishment for Garcia's past transgressions, he just shrugged off the whole episode as another lesson learned under the Head Ball Coach.
"I don't think that was a punishment at all," Garcia said. "As coach stated, and as I've said before, Connor played better than me in the scrimmages and preseason camp. He told me when he allowed me to come back that it was going to be an open competition, and I looked forward to it."
While Garcia wasn't spectacular -- he threw for 110 yards and one touchdown, ran for 56 yards and two more TDs -- it was enough to convince Spurrier that his free-spirited veteran quarterback would start over Shaw on Saturday against Georgia.
"I never said Connor was the best quarterback on the team," Spurrier said. "We never said Connor was going to be the starter for the year. Connor just won the preseason competition. I said each would play a quarter each and we'd go from there. It worked its way out."
Garcia, who has started against Georgia twice already during this career, said his preparation won't be any different this week.
"You've got to go into each practice knowing that you're going to play that week," Garcia said. "Knowing that I'm starting doesn't really make a difference. To be honest, my preparation will be the same as it was last week against East Carolina."