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USC football: Mitchell is Jekyll and Hyde
Contrary to popular belief, there is much more to Blake Mitchell than simply finding his on-off switch. His uncanny ability to go from looking like Joe Namath in one game to looking like Joe Schmoe in the next goes much deeper than that.
There is a little complexity in any attempt to figure out why Mitchell can throw three interceptions against South Carolina State, then come back from exile on the bench to complete 22 of 33 passes for 222 yards and a touchdown - in the second half alone - against Tennessee.
When Mitchell is making his throws, USC fans can rightfully mention his name among the best quarterbacks in school history. He looked the part when he threw for 330 yards and three touchdowns against Central Florida in 2005 to kickoff the Steve Spurrier era at USC. Then there was the 388-yard, four-touchdown performance against Middle Tennessee a season ago, and the Liberty Bowl MVP showing against Houston when he threw for 323 yards and four touchdowns.
For all the world, and a national television audience, it looked as if Mitchell was back to his all-world best in the second half against Tennessee on Saturday. He brought USC back from a three-touchdown deficit and directed the Gamecocks to a late-game lead.
Then came overtime, and the other Blake Mitchell made a return appearance. He inexplicably bobbled a snap from center, then missed his target in the front corner of the end zone for what would have been the winning touchdown.
So, what gives? Why the inconsistency? Even Spurrier has a difficult time explaining the Mitchell mystery.
"I don't have the answer to that," Spurrier said Tuesday.
Spurrier has hinted at several reasons why Mitchell lacks consistency. They include his poor decision-making skills, his tendency to get nervous in tight situations and his lack of confidence.
The nervousness, which might explain the dropped snap from center in overtime, might go hand in hand with shaky confidence.
"At some point, our quarterbacks hopefully will go out there with a lot of confidence," Spurrier said, speaking not specifically of Mitchell but also of Chris Smelley and Tommy Beecher. "We've got a lot of nervous guys that play for some reason. Hopefully, we can play with a little bit more confidence."
Spurrier said he attempts to increase a quarterback's confidence through pats on the back. He said he also gives the starter confidence that he is in the game for the duration, as he has done with Mitchell this week. A couple of mistakes, Spurrier said, does not mean the starter will be removed.
Then there is decision-making, and Mitchell might fall into that age-old college football belief that a quarterback who makes poor decisions off the field probably does the same on the field. Mitchell was suspended a season ago for an off-field altercation and this season for academic reasons.
There appear to be a couple of ways to reduce Mitchell's decision-making. By protecting him in the pocket on pass attempts and by establishing a running game, Mitchell's duties are restricted to simply making throws while at the same time reducing the chance of him having to improvise.
"It's a little different from most of the quarterbacks I've coached, a little different group," Spurrier said of his three quarterbacks. "We've got to just keep coaching and believe they will improve as we go here, of course Blake doesn't have many games left to improve."
With Mitchell, it probably is no longer a matter of improving. It is more a matter of getting the good Mitchell to show up for the remaining three games of the regular season. The chances of that happening hinge mostly on whether USC establishes a running game and how well the offensive line protects him.
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