East Carolina lets strong 1st half slip away

Associated Press
South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw (14) fumbles the ball when he gets popped in between East Carolina's Daniel Drake (59) and Terry Williams (54) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 3, 2011. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)
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South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw (14) fumbles the ball when he gets popped in between East Carolina's …

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Dominique Davis can't stop thinking about East Carolina's prospects this season, even after a disheartening loss to No. 12 South Carolina.

The Pirates held a 17-0 lead and were up 24-14 at the half before falling 56-37 on Saturday night. The game turned for East Carolina during the first five minutes of the third quarter when the Gamecocks converted three fumbles into three touchdowns. South Carolina didn't fall behind again.

"That's what hurts," Davis said. But "that's what makes this offense exciting, though. Those are things you can correct."

The Pirates hope to do that in a hurry. They take on No. 13 Virginia Tech next week. "I wish we could practice right now," East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill said.

Davis is a sophomore coming off a season where he threw for 3,967 yards and 37 touchdowns. He was certainly the most productive quarterback in this game with 260 yards and four touchdowns against the Gamecocks.

Davis said he's not going to let the Pirates hang their heads about the turnaround. "The team is very positive," he said. "We're so excited about what we can do if we just be ourselves. "We're going to go to work this week."

It looked like the Gamecock had taken the week off, especially in the first 20 minutes. They fumbled three times, including one by the usually reliable Marcus Lattimore, to fall behind at Bank of America Stadium.

It was benched quarterback Stephen Garcia who rallied South Carolina to its 12 straight season-opening win as he rushed for two TDs and threw for another.

"I don't know if this was my best game as a Gamecock, but we needed this win, for sure," the fifth-year senior said, "especially for us to come back and win after that first quarter."

The performance earned Garcia back his starting job, which he had the previous 28 games before this, when South Carolina opens the Southeastern Conference season at Georgia. But it didn't earn him too much praise from Spurrier, famously hard on his quarterbacks.

Spurrier didn't second guess his choice of starting sophomore Connor Shaw and expected Garcia to play better than he did against the Pirates.

No game ball for Garcia from the Ball Coach.

"I said, 'Wait a minute. When he throws for about 300 yards and brings us down the field scoring at the end of the game,'" Spurrier said. "He played well. But hopefully, he'll have a big, big game."

Some might say Garcia's had several through the years, including his three-touchdown, 17-of-20 showing last season in a 35-21 upset of top-ranked Alabama. Spurrier has crowed often of last year's milestone of beating Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and Florida all in the same season — and all with Garcia as starter.

"The offense just responded to Stephen better," said Ace Sanders, who caught Garcia's lone touchdown pass.

Marcus Lattimore added 112 yards rushing and three TDs.

Garcia was the steadying hand after a butter-fingers first quarter that featured three Gamecocks fumbles, two of which led to East Carolina scores. With Garcia back under center, the offense started to click and South Carolina took control of the season opener.

Garcia had a 32-yard touchdown run his first series and when Lattimore finished the Gamecocks next drive with a 4-yard scoring run, South Carolina fans at Bank of America Stadium began chanting Garcia's name in celebration.

Garcia opened the second half with a with a 3-yard TD pass to Sanders and put the Gamecocks ahead for good moments later, 28-24, with a 1-yard touchdown run.

Garcia threw for 3,059 yards and 20 TDs last year and was a big reason the team played in the Southeastern Conference title game as Eastern Division champs. But Garcia was suspended twice this spring, upping his career total to five at South Carolina, something that's irked Spurrier to no end.

So the Gamecocks coach put the ball in Shaw's hands, saying the sophomore who'd thrown just 33 college passes had outperformed Garcia throughout the summer.

"Stephen's a fine quarterback," McNeill said. "He led them to the division championship."

Despite his troubles, Garcia had the most passing yards of any returning SEC quarterback. He quickly showed that he has learned a thing or two under Spurrier.

"I was just playing the way I know how to play," Garcia said.

He found Lattimore for a 20-yard completion, then broke free on a 32 yard TD run, the longest of his time at South Carolina, to give the Gamecocks some offensive life. Garcia hit Alshon Jeffery on a 22-yard pass the next series, which ended with the first of Lattimore's scoring runs.

Garcia was 7 of 15 for 110 yards in three quarters of work.

East Carolina had hoped to tap into its curious history against South Carolina. The teams last met in 1999, the Pirates won 21-3 in Columbia as Hurricane Floyd flooded camps. East Carolina remainied in town the following week, training at a local high school in preparation for one of the biggest wins in school history — a 27-23 victory over then ninth-ranked Miami.

McNeill showed his players tape of that game this week as the campus was closed for two days because of last weekend's Hurricane Irene.

But those Pirates had 30 NFL draft picks including Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback David Garrard. This group gave up the most yards per game in the Football Bowl Subdivision last season and they couldn't hold together against the Gamecocks.

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