COLUMBIA, S.C. — Steve Spurrier hopes he's finally got the pieces of South Carolina's championship puzzle in place.
The defending SEC Eastern Division champs were supposed to have little trouble on their way back to the league title game — and maybe even take the next step.
But the 18th-ranked Gamecocks (4-1, 2-1 SEC) have struggled the first month, especially on offense where their lack of production was painfully obvious in a 16-13 loss last week to an Auburn defense that came in as the worst in the conference.
Spurrier felt he had no choice but to swap out fifth-year senior quarterback Stephen Garcia for little-used sophomore Connor Shaw when South Carolina takes on Kentucky (2-3, 0-2) on Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium.
"Stephen is trying as hard as he can and it just hasn't worked out for him," Spurrier said. "And the other guy, Connor, now is going to get his chance, and that's about all I need to say about that."
Shaw had a chance earlier this season, starting South Carolina's opener with East Carolina and lasting only a quarter as the Pirates took a 17-0 lead. Garcia entered in the second quarter and immediately sparked the Gamecocks' offense, the team eventually rallying to a 56-37 win. Garcia had started the past four games, giving him 34 in his career under Spurrier.
But South Carolina's head ball coach couldn't stomach another performance like last Saturday, especially when a just another play or two might've meant victory. Garcia was 9 of 23 for 160 yards and two interceptions. Throw out a 50-yard TD toss to Alshon Jeffery and Garcia's numbers plummet.
Shaw was a highly regarded recruit out of Flowery Branch, Ga., a coach's son whose older brother, Jaybo, played at Georgia Tech before moving on to Georgia Southern.
"I think I'm ready to play. I'm excited and we'll see how it goes this Saturday," Shaw said.
Shaw won't face Spurrier's notoriously quick hook, the coach swears, unless he's injured. Spurrier said Garcia has handled the demotion well and would be ready if called on.
The Gamecocks pledge to have Shaw's back the same way they supported Garcia.
"We believe in anybody coach Spurrier puts back there," offensive lineman Terrence Campbell said. "Apparently, coach Spurrier put him back there because he has faith in him. If he has faith in him, then the whole team is going to rally behind him."
If Shaw works out, it could be just what the Gamecocks — and Jeffery — need. Garcia has been off target all season, his completion percentage dropping from 64 last year to 51 so far in 2011. Jeffery, who set school records with 88 catches and 1,517 yards last season, has not come close to that production this season, often watching balls fly over his head or never get out to him. He has just 19 catches for 332 yards and two touchdowns this season.
Kentucky coach Joker Phillips doesn't expect much to change in Spurrier's offense with Shaw instead of Garcia. Spurrier will continue to attack downfield, Phillips said, and go to the SEC's rushing leader Marcus Lattimore.
"You could go in there and hand it off to (Lattimore) and still have success," Phillips said.
The Gamecocks are third in the conference in rushing yards (197 per game) and are scoring nearly 32 points a game, both levels Phillips would love to have. The Wildcats are averaging 116 yards on the ground and scoring just 15 points a game.
"I don't know what shaking up needs to be done (at South Carolina) when you're putting up the numbers that they're putting up offensively," Phillips said.
Lattimore has 677 yards, second nationally to Pittsburgh runner Ray Graham's 724 yards. But Lattimore was held to season lows with 66 yards and 17 carries in the Auburn loss.
The Gamecocks could be without defensive playmaker Melvin Ingram, an end who had not practiced this week because of a left foot injury. Ingram was named the SEC defensive player of the week for the past two weeks. "You see Ingram all over the place," Phillips said.
comment on this story
The Wildcats ended Spurrier's 17-0 mark against them with last year's 31-28 victory. Then Kentucky had standouts like quarterback Mike Hartline and do-it-all weapon Randall Cobb. This time, it's the Gamecocks who have the game-changers, particularly Lattimore.
Spurrier called on Lattimore to control tempo, wear down opponents and win the game as the passing game faltered. The coach couldn't afford another late loss in which another completed pass or two might've meant victory.
"We feel like Connor deserves a shot and see if he can perform at a higher level and get our offense going a bit," Spurrier said. "So that's where we are on offense."