College Sports

Can Spurrier survive without a passing game?

COLUMBIA -- It had to be absolutely agonizing for Steve Spurrier to say it.

"We just got to re-evaluate the passing game and figure out whether we can throw or not," he said, shaking his head after a 38-3 win over S.C. State Saturday. "I thought sometimes we had some guys open, but anyway ... our quarterbacks had a tough time tonight for some reason."

It was one of the most lip-biting, chagrined 35-point wins South Carolina's ever been a part of. It was a blowout on the scoreboard and hardly anywhere else.

The Gamecocks won handily, but it took a first half of piddling around and turning the ball over five times before they woke up. After watching Blake Mitchell and Tommy Beecher throw a combined three interceptions and fumble once in the first two quarters, Spurrier had to swallow a large chunk of pride and tell his team of the second-half gameplan.

"At halftime, we basically had to tell our guys, 'We're going to start running,'" Spurrier said.

Cory Boyd and Mike Davis led the charge in the second half, shredding the Bulldogs' line and getting in position for three touchdowns. Each ended with over 100 yards.

So why wasn't Spurrier sitting in his chair, hands behind his head, grinning at USC's sixth straight win dating to last year?

Because telling Steve Spurrier he's got to win without passing is like telling him he's got to breathe without using his lungs.

"I got to figure out whether to call for those pass plays or call for those off-tackle plays," he said. "Lo and behold, I used to think you throw the streak down the boundary, no way that one gets intercepted. But dadgum, that one got picked, too."

He was referring to Mitchell's third interception. Jasper Brinkley intercepted Cleveland McCoy deep in Bulldogs territory and with a 24-3 lead, the Gamecocks could have put the game away.

So on the first play, Mitchell threw deep to the corner of the end zone, looking for Kenny McKinley. The only problem was McKinley was expecting the ball at the back corner, it ended up in the front corner and hit S.C. State's Bailey Brinson right in the numbers.

"I didn't play like I was capable of," Mitchell said.

There's nothing wrong with using the run to win. Pretty much every football team before 1980 treated the forward pass like an emergency fire alarm.

But Spurrier never thought that way. His teams at Duke and Florida were built around the pass, those beloved throws that could be diagrammed 10 or 12 different ways.

During his first two years at USC, Spurrier has used the pass well. Obviously not as well as he did with the Gators, but enough to keep USC's running backs as the second offensive option.

There was no reason to think that would change this year. Mitchell was returning after an excellent season-ending performance in 2006 and the receiving corps was missing Sidney Rice but had plenty of young talent around.

But through three games, USC's offensive line has struggled to protect its quarterback and the receivers haven't been able to get open downfield. Spurrier adjusted the playbook to more screens and short slants, but now it appears that may have to be shelved as well.

Boyd and Davis have been grand in the first three games, Boyd equipped with breakaway speed and ability to shed the line and Davis the tough, head-down runner position coaches dream of. With no Syvelle Newton to turn to at quarterback this year, Spurrier may not like it, but in order to win, he may have to call his tailbacks' numbers a whole lot more than he does Mitchell's.

"We still can't hit a deep ball, and that's really frustrating," Spurrier said. "Just can't hit a deep ball. I don't know how to coach it any differently than how I've been doing."

And he's got to find an answer quickly. LSU in six days won't be as forgiving as S.C. State.