No thing of beauty, but Gamecocks survive resilient 'Dores in opener
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Jamie Speronis, South Carolina's associate athletic director for football operations, emerged from the Gamecocks' locker room late Thursday wearing a grin inversely proportional in size to the beauty of the game that caused it. "As they say in golf," Speronis said, "never cuss a par."
Did South Carolina look like a top-10 team in its 17-13 win at Vanderbilt? Not even close. Did the Gamecocks look like a team capable of competing for an SEC -- and, using a logical leap informed by the results of the past six years, the national -- title? Nope. Did South Carolina leave Vanderbilt Stadium 1-0 overall and 1-0 in the SEC East? Yes. For opening night, that's enough. No team ever won a title in Week 1. But when a team opens with a divisional opponent, it's plenty possible to lose a title in Week 1.
Besides, if Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier wasn't already convinced Connor Shaw is his favorite quarterback since Rex Grossman, he was after Shaw gutted out the win despite a painful shoulder bruise that left his throwing arm hanging limp after several plays. Also, tailback Marcus Lattimore played his first game since tearing his ACL last October, shook off a fumble on his first carry and finished with 23 carries for 110 yards and two touchdowns. Meanwhile, the Gamecocks learned a valuable lesson about preseason hype: It doesn't mean anything when the lights come on.
"Maybe it's good for us ... You look at the preseason press, we thought we were hot stuff," Spurrier said. "Then we almost got that stuff beat out of us."
That's the good news. The bad news? South Carolina's line didn't protect Shaw. If Vandy's defense can terrorize Shaw, imagine what Georgia and LSU will do. The Gamecocks' defensive line, after a ferocious start, did not return the favor much in the middle quarters against Vandy quarterback Jordan Rodgers. Also, South Carolina needed a questionable no-call on a throw to Jordan Matthews to survive Vanderbilt's final offensive possession. On replays, South Carolina safety D.J. Swearinger appeared to whack Matthews' left hand away before the ball arrived. Afterward, Commodores coach James Franklin said exactly what he thought about the call by refusing to talk about the call. "You did know the SEC just came out with very clear rules about talking about the officials and what happens after games," Franklin said. "Trying to get me fined?"
It became obvious Vanderbilt would hang around late in the first half when Shaw trudged to the sideline, his arm dangling, after a hit by linebacker Archibald Barnes on a two-yard gain. South Carolina backup Dylan Thompson struggled to get the ball snapped before the play clock hit zero, and when he did, he struggled to escape Vandy's pressure. Shortly after Vandy's Carey Spear made a 44-yard field goal to give the Commodores a 13-10 lead, Shaw jogged from the locker room to the sideline. Lattimore asked Shaw how he felt. "I'll be back in there," Lattimore remembered Shaw saying. As Lattimore recounted the conversation, he impersonated Shaw by letting his right arm go limp at his side.
Shaw's first possession back was a three-and-out, but he would stay on the field much longer the next time the Gamecocks got the ball. In the opening seconds of the fourth quarter, Shaw hit Lattimore for an eight-yard gain on third-and-seven. Two plays later, Shaw fired a pass to tight end Justice Cunningham that placed Cunningham squarely in the sights of Commodores cornerback Andre Hal. Hal blasted Cunningham. Cunningham's helmet popped like a champagne cork, but he held on to the ball for a 20-yard gain that became a 35-yarder after officials tacked on a personal foul against Hal. "I didn't get it as bad as it looked," Cunningham said. "I got to pop up right away." Said Spurrier as he walked past Cunningham and toward the team bus: "Play of the game."
After another pass to Lattimore got the ball to the 13, Spurrier called a run for Shaw. The choice was risky. Since the injury, Shaw had avoided his usual Kamikaze running style. For South Carolina's offense to truly work, Shaw had to run without fear. For once, the line blocked perfectly. Shaw broke into the second level and charged toward the goal line. He couldn't slide. He knew he would get creamed, and the shoulder would scream again. "Adrenaline kicks in and everything goes," Shaw said. "You just see the goal line." Shaw landed a foot short of the line and crumpled into a heap. He slogged off the field, to be replaced by former walk-on Seth Strickland. South Carolina quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus has been preaching for two years that Strickland understood the offense and could handle the pressure. Thursday, he took command in the fourth quarter of a division game with the Gamecocks down three. Strickland didn't need to do anything fancy. He handed to Lattimore, let the offensive line make a hole and jogged off the field with the Gamecocks holding a lead they wouldn't relinquish.
South Carolina would still need Lattimore and Shaw to run out the clock. The defense did its part, holding Vanderbilt to 17 fourth-quarter yards. Lattimore did his, rushing for 36 yards on South Carolina's next three plays. After South Carolina stalled and the defense held again, Shaw gained seven on a sweep toward the right sideline on third-and-five. He ran the next three plays from the victory formation.
As the Gamecocks left the field, they didn't worry about how the win might be perceived. They didn't worry about a potential slide in the polls. There is a lot of golf between now and December, and they had gotten up-and-down out of a Vandy trap to save par. "It wasn't pretty," Shaw said. "But we'll take a win."