College Sports

Mitchell shows signs of leadership

ATHENS, Ga. -- Blake Mitchell, you are forgiven.

For now, anyway.

Mitchell returned to South Carolina's football team from a one-game suspension Saturday and calmly directed the Gamecocks to a 16-12 upset of No. 11 Georgia, a week after hearing boos from his own fans. The fifth-year senior, benched for missing too much summer class, sat out last week's season-opener against Louisiana-Lafayette and heard every smart-mouth kid in Williams-Brice Stadium telling him to make better decisions.

It's doubtful the same ones that belittled him last week are saying the same this week. USC owes its win over the Bulldogs to a lot of things, but Mitchell's steady presence under center can't be ignored.

His stats weren't gaudy -- a mere 20-for-31 for 174 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions. The longest throw he hit was 31 yards, utilizing a playbook that relied on screens and catch-and-runs to his tailbacks and slot receivers.

But Mitchell was the leader the Gamecocks desperately needed. He was the field general, getting to his feet every time the Bulldogs hit him and making the plays despite throwing many of them while in the clutches of red jerseys.

"I just try to go play and show everybody I can play the game," said Mitchell, non-committal as always. "That shows you ... we can win the big game."

And it also shows everybody that Mitchell can be not just a quarterback, but a leader.

Playing quarterback for Steve Spurrier, a pretty fair signal-caller himself back in the day, has never been easy. He's rotated his starter, criticized the least little mechanical flaw to everybody who will listen and held public dressing-downs.

He wants them to be like he usually was -- perfect, or pretty darn close. And if they can't, someone else is always available.

Saturday, Mitchell wasn't perfect and he wasn't flashy. But he was in control, didn't panic when he had to make a big play and worked with every weakness Georgia gave him.

There were all those simple toss-outs to Mike Davis and Cory Boyd, letting them catch and run with it. Then the quick decision to tuck and run on a third-quarter first down, the Gamecocks trying to make a 10-3 lead last.

Then the dropped ball that slipped out of Mitchell's hands on a third down, a blunder he immediately fell on and kept away from the rushing Georgia defense.

When it was over, Mitchell had done something no other USC quarterback, not Grantz or Suggs or Ellis or Taneyhill, had ever done. He was the first to beat Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and Clemson in a career.

And he's still got at least 10 games left, maybe more if he can direct the Gamecocks to what Spurrier says they're capable of.

Mitchell said he never saw the row of Georgia students camped above the USC sideline, spellling "Go2ClassBlake" in paint across their backs. He also said the boos from his home fans last week didn't bother him.

What else could he say? That he tightened up and didn't think he could do the job anymore, after coming off the bench last year for an epic season-ending performance?

"I try not to worry about what happens outside the lines," he said. "We know we have some tough games coming up. We got to try and get better and keep pushing forward."

The sometimes-fickle USC fans will obviously roar their approval when Mitchell takes the reins this week against S.C. State. I'm sure Mitchell, being in Columbia for five years, knows how one simple play can forever endear an athlete to the Gamecock faithful.

The trick now is to keep it going. Not the fans' support, although I'm sure Mitchell would love that in his corner.

The strong performances. Yes, it's just one game, but USC is 2-0, on top of the SEC and the newly christened No. 17 team in the country.

"I just tried to run the plays," Mitchell said. "Everybody did a good job tonight."

But everybody doesn't get the spotlight. And when it hits Mitchell next time, it's his choice whether to step further into it or shrink back into the shadows.