College Sports

USC needs Mitchell to build confidence

COLUMBIA -- Blake Mitchell was all set to throw a few quick touchdowns last week and keep up his hero's welcome, earned from a 16-12 win at Georgia.

Instead, following a familiar script, he retreated into a shell, victim of a nagging lack of self-confidence.

"I just didn't play very well," he said afterward, in the same voice he had after beating the Bulldogs.

The numbers actually weren't that bad. Mitchell completed 14-of-21 passes for 147 yards and three touchdowns.

But three interceptions -- including two that were underthrown, one that ended a drive one play after USC's defense had intercepted a pass -- were concerning. And Mitchell's apparent lack of focus only one game before Saturday's date with No. 2 LSU pushed coach Steve Spurrier close to panic mode.

"He doesn't have a good rhythm, doesn't trust things, doesn't have good confidence," Spurrier said. "Quarterback's got to have that attitude to improve things.

"But maybe he can get it back. I think he's our best quarterback."

Spurrier said Mitchell would start Saturday and would most likely go the distance, considering backup Tommy Beecher might have played the worst game of his career against S.C. State. Chris Smelley, who started USC's season-opener, should be fine after sitting out two weeks with a sprained shoulder, but Spurrier said he wasn't going to stick a basically untested QB in the huddle if Mitchell was healthy.

Mitchell's fine, physically.

Mentally?

Wait and see.

"I was just not throwing it like I was capable of, not letting it go, not trusting myself," Mitchell said. "I just got to go out there and let it go."

Much of Mitchell's problem was the porous protection from his offensive line. On the first play against S.C. State, right guard Lemuel Jeanpierre whiffed his defender, allowing a clear shot at the No. 12 printed on Mitchell's chest.

Mitchell went down in a heap but got back up. Two plays later, Kenny McKinley was open across the middle, Mitchell fired 10 yards too deep and hit S.C. State's Markee Hamlin right in the numbers.

The protection, Spurrier said, caused Mitchell to get a little "gun-shy." He said Mitchell began worrying about when he was going to get hit, thus not setting his feet or putting as fine a touch on his passes as he normally would.

Those factors turned into Mitchell throwing deep to the corner of the end zone for McKinley but not putting enough mustard on the ball.

Interception.

And Moe Brown had two steps and a clear path to the goal line, as long as Mitchell could air it out and let Brown run under it. Instead, Mitchell didn't put enough heat on the spiral.

Off Brown's facemask. Incomplete.

"I said, 'At what time do you ever get the ball out in front of them?'" Spurrier said. "I said, 'If you can do it in practice, who don't you get it out there?'"

It's not a question of talent. Mitchell played some of the best football of his career at the end of 2006, coming off the bench and leading USC to three straight wins. The line is a concern, since it hasn't had to adjust to a mobile quarterback like it did last year, going on to use that experience to plant and hold when the drop-back guy returned.

But most of it is confidence. As Spurrier has constantly said, quarterbacks, or specifically, his quarterbacks, have to play with swagger if they're going to get the job done.

"I wish Blake had really improved from his first year or so," Spurrier said.

"Our offensive line, they blocked well," Mitchell said, ever the company man. "We definitely didn't look past them or anything like that.

"(Against S.C. State), I definitely didn't play as well as I was capable of. I just got to throw it."

NO. 12 USC (3-0, 1-0 SEC) AT NO. 2 LSU (3-0, 1-0)

• When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday

• Where: Tiger Stadium, Baton Rouge, La.

• TV: CBS (cable channel 5 in Rock Hill)

• Tickets: Sold out

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