Five years later, McElwain returns to face very different USC

Jim McElwain's Florida team has clinched the SEC East title in his first season as Gators head coach. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

During his days at South Carolina, Steve Spurrier always hitched a ride on Florida’s jet to Bristol, Conn., for the annual preseason gathering of SEC coaches at ESPN. On the aircraft this past summer, the Head Ball Coach couldn’t help sharing a photo with first-year Gators coach Jim McElwain.

It was of a football — from USC’s 35-21 victory in 2010 over No. 1 Alabama, which then featured McElwain as offensive coordinator.

“I think we had a 19-, 20-game win streak going in there, and they beat our tails,” McElwain remembered this week. “He was pretty quick to remind me about that. Good thing I’m not playing in this game.”

Saturday marks McElwain’s first trip to Williams-Brice Stadium since that contest, which stands as one of the biggest victories in Gamecocks history. They’ll try to record another one against the 11th-ranked and SEC East champion Gators, a necessary step if USC hopes to have any chance of sweeping its final three games and avoiding its first losing season since 2003.

It will be a very different environment from McElwain’s last trip to Columbia, when Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide entered unbeaten and on a 19-game winning streak, and USC was beginning to peak under Spurrier. Quarterback Stephen Garcia threw three touchdown passes, two to current NFL star Alshon Jeffery, as the Gamecocks notched the program’s first victory over an opponent ranked No. 1.

“Coach Spurrier put it to me pretty good on that one, and he was right,” McElwain said. “I just remember that quarterback they had, that kid out of Tampa, from that given game, he might have been the No. 1 draft pick in the country coming out after that, because he and Alshon Jeffery played pretty good.”

Saturday, it won’t be Spurrier on the opposite sideline, but interim head coach Shawn Elliott, who took over the program following the Head Ball Coach’s resignation Oct. 13. In examining the Gamecocks (3-6, 1-6 SEC), McElwain still sees Spurrier’s influence on the USC offense — but also that of Appalachian State, where Elliott played and was an assistant under Jerry Moore before moving to Columbia.

“Coach Spurrier was ahead of his time in attacking defenses and in a lot of the things he does. So you see a lot of that carryover, but now you see in these last three games, you see the thumbprint of going back and looking at App State stuff, some of the stuff they do, especially with the option games and obviously the special plays, however you want to call it,” McElwain said.

“There’s a lot of that stuff going on, and you know what, their team right now is playing awful loose and playing really hard. They’re a good football team. Obviously, those guys are doing a heck of a job there coaching them, and the guys are really playing hard for them.”

Elliott and offensive coordinator G.A. Mangus have unearthed some previously unused elements of USC’s offensive package, many of them involving option plays and multi-back sets of the kind Elliott is familiar with from his time at Appalachian State. He’s also shifted players into different positions, using quarterback Lorenzo Nunez as a ball carrier on a trick play, tight end Kevin Crosby as an H-back, and linebacker Jonathan Walton as a fullback.

“We’re just having fun and trying to create some new ideas,” Elliott said. “... We’ll continue to add some stuff.”

In the process, they’ve revived a team that despite its record is playing much more competitively, taking Texas A&M and Tennessee to the final possession of the game the past two weeks. For the Gators (8-1, 6-1) it promises to be a very different opponent from the one McElwain faced in his last visit to Williams-Brice Stadium five seasons ago.

“You can see the App State influence on what they’re doing offensively, some really good stuff,” McElwain said. “We’re going to have to really play disciplined, we’re going to have to do a good job with our eyes, and as always, not turn the ball over, and hopefully go down and give them a decent ballgame.”

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