College Sports

Gamecocks' offense finally hitting stride

COLUMBIA -- As sick as everybody was, sitting in Neyland Stadium's visiting locker room last week, there was a bright spot surrounding the open question of South Carolina's football future.

For the first time all year, the Gamecocks' offense clicked.

"It was there," quarterback Blake Mitchell said. "Just a matter of hitting things, taking what they gave us. I thought I did a decent job of that."

They all did. The only problem was no one wanted to bask in it after Ryan Succop's game-extending kick sailed wide right and cemented a 27-24 overtime loss at Tennessee.

With a two-game losing streak and their SEC championship hopes severely damaged, the No. 23 Gamecocks head to Arkansas on Saturday, needing a win to boost their confidence and their bowl game aspirations.

But at least they've got a renewed faith in their offense and ability to score, which might be the best way to counter the Razorbacks' powerful rushing game.

"Oh, I don't get much encouragement out of losing a game when we had so many opportunities to win," coach Steve Spurrier said. "Hopefully we can play with a little bit more confidence."

The Gamecocks were extremely confident against Tennessee, although it took a first half of nothing to set it up. Once the second half began, though, Mitchell was hitting his targets and USC erased a 21-0 deficit in its first four possessions.

Mitchell wound up 31-of-45 for 290 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Cory Boyd ran like a man possessed, notching a career-high 160 yards, while Kenny McKinley caught 14 passes for 151 yards, including a fourth-down touchdown that tied the score.

The Gamecocks (6-3, 3-3 SEC) have ignored the statistical criticism -- Tennessee sports the next-to-last defense in the league -- and focused on keeping that second half going this week. The maligned offensive line was still far from perfect but seemed intent on keeping Mitchell protected, and the way Boyd ran, he might have stepped over backfield mate Mike Davis to become an every-down ball-carrier.

Defensively, Arkansas ranks sixth in the SEC, just behind USC. If the Gamecocks can slow down Heisman Trophy-contending running back Darren McFadden -- even a rib injury hasn't really stopped him -- and get into a shootout, they feel good about their chances.

"We need to continue making plays and just keep putting things together, and we'll be all right," Mitchell said. "Got to put things together, get rid of the foolish penalties, then we'll be a pretty decent offense."

Spurrier has already entrenched Mitchell as the starter this week and said the fifth-year senior will get a shot at QB for the rest of the year. Tommy Beecher, who hasn't taken a snap in six games, will back up Mitchell, after a poor first-quarter performance from Chris Smelley last week transformed him from starting five straight games to third string.

"Smelley just made a couple of bad plays the other night that got him out of the game," Spurrier said. "Looking back, we think Blake is probably our best guy to go play. He's very capable."

Mitchell is, as was evidenced during last year's end-of-season run. But Spurrier's hoping Mitchell won't regress again, as he did this season when an excellent showing at Georgia turned into a debacle against S.C. State.

"We thought Smelley had played the best up to that point. And he had," Spurrier said, explaining why Mitchell was the forgotten man until last week. "Hopefully Blake will do most of the playing, if he can hang in there and so forth."