College Sports

Starting job was birthday treat for Smelley

USC quarterback Chris Smelley has the starting job, for now.
USC quarterback Chris Smelley has the starting job, for now.

COLUMBIA -- All Blake Mitchell got for his birthday was a demotion.

Chris Smelley might have received an extra bonus Saturday, his 21st birthday -- a coronation as South Carolina's starting quarterback.

I guess it's just plain bad luck -- or good, depending on which quarterback you like best -- that Smelley was given another shot at being the Gamecocks' signal-caller on his happy 21st. It came just six days after Mitchell celebrated his 23rd, although he probably wasn't too happy, considering he'd been benched at halftime of the LSU game a day before.

Three weeks ago, after Mitchell was a large chunk of a 16-12 upset of Georgia, it seemed Mitchell had bailed himself out of trouble again. All thoughts of a season-opening suspension were gone after he led, yes, LED, the Gamecocks to the victory.

But either the offensive line's porous skills or coach Steve Spurrier's legendary impatience with his quarterbacks or Mitchell's own psyche sidetracked him. A shoddy performance against S.C. State was magnified at LSU, sending Mitchell back to the bench and Smelley, who started against Louisiana-Lafayette, back to the huddle.

Smelley played well against Mississippi State on Saturday. Well, but not great, which might be as good as we can expect from USC's quarterbacks this season.

His biggest stake on holding the starting job was avoiding the pass-rush, something Mitchell never seemed to grasp. The protection around Smelley looked about the same as it did with Mitchell, except Smelley moved up in the pocket, scrambled on a few plays and got himself out of trouble.

The only time he messed up was when the Bulldogs bum-rushed him in the first quarter, the score tied 7-all and the Gamecocks camped at the MSU 25-yard-line. Smelley, on third-and-17, ran under pressure and tried to air a throw over two defenders to the end zone, where Kenny McKinley was waiting.

Derek Pegues easily snared the underthrown ball and that drive was history.

"I was living in high school moments, I guess," Smelley said. "I was trying to make a big play out there when I was all out."

But the flub was overcome by a calm presence, especially after the Bulldogs scored to lead 21-17 in the third quarter. USC's special teams made a play and it was up to Smelley to make it count, so he bulleted a pass to McKinley and McKinley turned it into the go-ahead touchdown.

He finished 19-of-37 for 279 yards, two touchdowns and the pick. Many of his passes had a bit too much air under them when they needed to get to the receiver quickly, but for Saturday, at least, it wasn't a problem.

"Barring injury, he'll play Thursday night," Spurrier said, endorsing Smelley as the starter this week, when No. 14 Kentucky visits. "The interception was really his only bad play."

The jury is still out on whether this is a lasting switch. I would say Mitchell will get another shot eventually ... it could be Spurrier throws the whole bunch of them out and starts walk-on Zac Brindise.

But for those who are questioning Spurrier's continued carousel of yanking quarterbacks, perhaps it's time to sit back and relax. For whatever reason, the Gamecocks played better with Smelley guiding them, and Smelley deserves another chance as long as he keeps producing.

For Mitchell, the quickest way to get back on the field is to keep practicing and asking for a chance. If the chance never happens, at least he'll have given his best.

If not, he'll only have himself to blame. Smelley's already proven himself a pretty smart guy in one key category.

"I'm not much of a partier," Smelley said, replying to what he planned to do for his birthday and to celebrate a pretty good outing. "You probably won't see me out in Five Points."