When Connor Shaw went down with a right shoulder sprain on the eighth play of the first drive last week against UCF, it looked bad. As he came off of the field, there were concerns rippling around Gamecock nation, and people feared the worst as Shaw emerged from the locker room, his arm in a sling. If the last two-plus seasons have proven anything about Shaw, it is that he’s tough as nails.
During Steve Spurrier’s weekly press conference, he told a room of surprised reporters that the training staff may have overestimated the severity of Shaw’s injury, or maybe just forgotten his toughness and will to play.
“I don’t know who will start yet. We will sort of wait on that. The trainer had him out two-to-three weeks. Yesterday, he threw a ball 55 yards”.
Last year, Shaw played as much as he could with a foot sprain that required surgery in the offseason, as well as playing the early part of the season with a hairline fracture in his throwing shoulder–and injury suffered Week 1 against Vanderbilt. Playing through pain is nothing new for Shaw.
While the status of starter remains uncertain, one thing that is certain: if healthy, Shaw deserves to start. Even ignoring the fact that he is 20-4 all time as a starter–four wins short of the South Carolina record–Shaw is completing just under 65% of his passes and has thrown for 600 yards and six touchdowns with no interceptions in what has effectively been three games. His only turnovers have been an unlucky fumble late against Georgia and his fumble early against UCF, which appeared to be a direct result of the injury.
Even if he does not start, Dylan Thompson has more than proven his ability to run this offense. If Thompson gets the start but Shaw is healthy, then as is well in Columbia. If Shaw cannot go, and anything were to happen to Thompson, the next in line would be either Perry Orth or Brendan Nosovitch, neither of whom has taken a snap in college.
Regardless of who is starting Saturday (10/5) when the South Carolina football team (3-1) takes on the Kentucky Wildcats (1-3) at 7:30 on ESPN3, Williams-Brice Stadium will be rocking. This will be the last home game before a tough three-game road trip, and while Kentucky might be seen as a lesser opponent, it is still an SEC game. Although Kentucky is 1-3 with one of those losses coming against Western Kentucky, they played No. 7 Louisville close and even kept their game last week versus the No. 20 Florida manageable.
The Wildcats’ defense is to credit for playing Louisville and Florida close, as they could only muster a total of 20 points over that two week span, and Steve Spurrier acknowledges that. As he said in his Tuesday press conference “Their defense has played well most of the year, struggled occasionally. They have been tough and will come in here and give us all we can handle, I am sure.”
Fortunately for the Gamecocks, they have not struggled in the slightest on offense this year, accumulating an all-time high in total yardage through four games and are averaging 30 points per game. The key to their success offensively has been running the ball. South Carolina is averaging 225 yards per game, 508 of those coming from sophomore running back Mike Davis, who is having a monster year through four games and is the league’s leading rusher. The quarterbacks and wide receivers have been solid and even very good at times, but the heart of this offense is running the ball behind a big offensive line, that is one of the best that South Carolina has had in years.
Defensively, the Gamecocks have had their struggles but in general have not been bad. Last week against UCF, until the last three drives of the game, the defense held the Knights to only 10 points and less than 300 yards of offense. The key for Ward moving forward however, is playing a full 60 minute game. South Carolina has yet to do that this year and it has shown in recent weeks, as both Vanderbilt and Central Florida were able to surge back into the game late. As this young group of linebackers continues to improve and learn the defense, things will begin to come together. This week’s matchup, against a bad Kentucky offense, will be another great opportunity for this defense–particularly the young players–to sure some things up before their long road trip.
Traveling to Central Florida last week was a bona fide trap game, and while this week’s game holds much less potential for upset, the Gamecocks need to be up to the challenge, and, if they control the game like they should, can use this week as a tune-up and maybe even an opportunity to get some young players in the game to cultivate depth.
Most importantly, this weekend, South Carolina needs to stay healthy. In addition to Connor Shaw and running back Brandon Wilds (elbow, 2-3 weeks), starting center Cody Waldrop sprained his ankle and will be day-to-day. This leaves backup center Clayton Stadnik as the starter with no viable backup. Stadnik has filled in admirably–even better than perhaps the coaches thought that he would–in the absence of Waldrop, but an injury to Stadnik would be detrimental to a Gamecock offensive line that has been playing very well all year long.
South Carolina should be able to win this game at home comfortably even without Wilds, Shaw, or Waldrop, but they will need to continue getting players healthy–and hopefully not lose more to injury this weekend–if they want to survive a long SEC road trip, which includes the two longest trips that the Gamecocks have to take in the regular season, to Arkansas and to Missouri.