In retrospect, having Alshon Jeffery break a minor team rule and be docked a start could be just what No. 12 South Carolina needed.
Without his favorite target, quarterback Stephen Garcia was forced to look elsewhere at the start of the Navy game. He hit Jason Barnes for his first completion and it gathered steam from there; with the Midshipmen playing tight coverage on the deep routes (and Garcia overthrowing Ace Sanders on his first deep throw), the Gamecocks shortened the passing routes and began working the sidelines.
In the end, it was the most productive passing game of the young season, with seven receivers catching at least one pass and Garcia completing 18 of his 25 attempts (72 percent). Jeffery was held to two catches, but after catching 10 of the Gamecocks' first 21 of the year as Garcia struggled to hit his open men, it was relieving to see the passing offense begin to roll forward.
While Marcus Lattimore is an absolute monster on the field, it's vexing to coach Steve Spurrier that he can't get Lattimore more rest and that his pass-first approach is having to take a far back seat to the talented tailback. But the Navy game may have given the passing game a start, which the Gamecocks just have to sustain going against a more "traditional" Vanderbilt defense this week.
"The defense they were playing, we had to rely on drop-down passes," explained tight end Justice Cunningham, who caught three passes for 34 yards against Navy, including a 12-yard catch on fourth-and-10. "Of course we've got to get it to 1. That's the plan. But spread the ball around."
Garcia and for one quarter, Connor Shaw, have struggled throwing deep passes this season, always seeming to be in front of their intended receivers. Even Jeffery, known for turning passes destined for the hash marks into completions, couldn't catch up to them.
The Gamecocks' passing game became a case of throwing high and letting Jeffery, a former basketball star, jump to get them. That worked for catching the ball, but hardly ever for gaining any yards after the catch. Defenders would get around Jeffery and tackle him as soon as his feet hit the ground.
Against Navy, though, Garcia settled down after a rough first series. After Lattimore and a pass to Barnes got the Gamecocks to the Navy 36-yard-line, Garcia stalled on three straight passes, including a trick play where he handed off, Lattimore flipped the ball back to him and Garcia fired for the end zone.
Sanders had a step on his man and was running straight ahead. The throw landed in the hedges beyond the end zone.
That keyed Lattimore anchoring the offense (again) and Garcia shortening the field. The remainder of his passes were to the sidelines, or short throws to the middle when he was given ample time to pick his men.
"We did throw sideways," Spurrier said on Tuesday. "They played sort of a big, deep zone. It was hard to get behind Navy. Thought we could hit some seam areas. But we didn't do that very well, either. The little quick screen out there was our best play."
It may not be the air-it-out style that Spurrier would prefer, but the passing game at least got into motion against Navy. It helped that the Gamecocks used Jeffery, but not as the primary target; Barnes, Cunningham and Nick Jones also got involved.
Jones said on Wednesday that he would start against Vanderbilt, and Jeffery will also start. The third starter is likely Sanders, who had just one catch for 3 yards against Navy but was very solid against East Carolina and Georgia.
The plan is to keep loosening up the passing game until the long passes start being completed as well, which will trigger what Spurrier knew he had in the preseason - so many different options at receiver that opponents wouldn't know what to do. While Lattimore has been magnificent in the first three games, Spurrier would like his receivers to help take the load off of him. The Gamecocks are confident Lattimore can sustain his health throughout the season, but why test it unnecessarily?
"We're not content on how we're playing," Spurrier said, "but we're going to try to play better."