Steve Spurrier has done wonders for the University of South Carolina football program, becoming the winningest coach in school history and guiding the team to 40 wins (and counting) the last four years. The complaints about the HBC have been few and far between recently, but one of the primary knocks on Spurrier in his nine years as head coach at the University of South Carolina has been this:
His inability to bring an elite high school quarterback into the program.
It has been perplexing, one of the great offensive minds in the history of college football unable to bring in top shelf talent at the position which he knows the best.
Some of the names he has signed since 2005 include Tommy Beecher, Cade Thompson, Chris Smelley, Aramis Hillary, Reid McCollum, Andrew Clifford and Tanner McEvoy. Of those seven only Clifford completed his eligibility at USC.
Of course we all know the saga of the one elite quarterback Spurrier did bring in, Stephen Garcia, and we have guys currently on the roster in Dylan Thompson, Brendan Nosovitch and Connor Mitch whom we think have a chance to be very good.
But it was an unheralded recruit out of Flowery Branch, GA, that has now staked his claim as the not only the best quarterback of the Spurrier era, but quite possibly the greatest Gamecock quarterback of all time – Connor Shaw.
Shaw passed on offers from the likes of East Carolina, Stanford, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and West Virginia (he had no other SEC offers) to sign with USC and Steve Spurrier, one of his football heroes.
Shaw could’ve been just another one of those guys, another signal caller who couldn’t grasp the offense or handle the day-to-day grind of being a Steve Spurrier quarterback. But Shaw is a coach’s son, and a damn tough one at that.
The Head Ball Coach took a liking to Shaw during the recruiting process, and when he arrived in Columbia as an early enrollee in the spring of 2010, he immediately moved his way up the depth chart and by the start of the season was the back-up to the established Stephen Garcia.
Shaw came in for the first time in the 2010 season opener against Southern Miss and threw a touchdown pass, then got some snaps the next week against Furman.
In the fourth game of the season, Spurrier shocked everyone by turning to Shaw in the fourth quarter of a one-score game against Auburn after Garcia had fumbled on back-to-back possessions. Twice Shaw led the Gamecocks into Auburn territory only to throw interceptions in what turned out to be a 35-27 loss. But despite the turnovers Shaw showed composure in moving the USC offense that night. If we didn’t notice it, Spurrier surely did.
The rest of the 2010 season the team belonged to Garcia, and besides taking his first big knockout shot in a loss to Arkansas, Shaw’s season was relatively uneventful.
During 2011 fall practice Spurrier teased us all by telling us he didn’t know who the starting quarterback was going to be in the season opener against East Carolina. I mean, surely the incumbent, the Senior, the man who led us to the SEC East title the previous year would start under center, right?
Wrong. Days before the ECU game Spurrier announced Shaw would start over Garcia, simply stating that Shaw had had a better fall practice.
Shaw was shaky in that start, and Garcia came to the rescue to lead the Gamecocks to a 56-37 victory, and seemingly order had been restored. But, despite a big win over Georgia in Athens the following week, Garcia never got in the groove. Mediocre play in wins over Navy and Vanderbilt, and a horrible performance in a crushing defeat to Auburn led Spurrier to make the switch back to Shaw.
A different Shaw showed up that Saturday against Kentucky, confident and ready to take the reins once and for all. He threw for 311 yards and 4 TDs in a 54-3 rout of the Wildcats. When Stephen Garcia was dismissed from the team the following week, we knew we had to ride or die with Connor Shaw the rest of the way.
Shaw led us to huge back-to-back road victories over Mississippi State and Tennessee (critics always seem to conveniently forget these games when they argue he can’t win a big game on the road.) Following a loss to an outstanding Arkansas team, Shaw willed the Gamecocks to a tight win over Florida, and then passed for 217 yards and ran for 90 in a win over The Citadel.
The next week Shaw put together one of the best games of his career, passing for 210 yards and 3 TDs and rushing for 107 yards and another score in a 34-13 rout of Clemson.
A Capital One Bowl win over Nebraska gave South Carolina their first 11-win season in school history, and finally Spurrier had the man he wanted leading the offense.
The 2012 season didn’t get off to the start the Gamecocks had hoped, with Shaw going down with a shoulder injury early in the first game against Vanderbilt. With Dylan Thompson ineffective, and despite excruciating pain, Shaw returned and simply willed USC to a win in Nashville.
He sat the following week, and a great game by Thompson against ECU started a debate that raged for a year and half – and still goes on in some minds – over who the starting quarterback should be.
Three straight wins set up a showdown with #5 Georgia, and in front of an ESPN national audience, Shaw and the Gamecocks played one of the most complete games in USC history, ripping the Bulldogs 35-7. Shaw completed only six passes, but amassed 162 yards and two TDs and also rushed for 78 yards and a TD.
The Gamecocks’ bubble was quickly burst with a close loss at LSU, and then a bizarre blowout loss at Florida that fueled the Shaw critics.
Shaw responded against Tennessee with a 356 yard, 3 TD performance on a day when Marcus Lattimore’s career at USC ended. Without Shaw’s performance that day the Gamecocks would have had a third straight loss and the season could’ve easily slipped away.
The next two weeks Shaw played and the Gamecocks won, but the beatings he had taken all year forced him to sit the finale against Clemson, and Thompson put together one of the legendary performances ever in the rivalry.
A still-injured Shaw and Thompson combined to lead the team to a dramatic win over Michigan in the Outback Bowl, and the program’s second consecutive 11-win season.
Coming into this season Spurrier talked of the two quarterbacks splitting time throughout the season, but early on it was evident that Shaw gave us the best chance to win week in and week out.
With the team sitting at 5-1, the season seemingly came crashing down on October 19 at Tennessee. Not only did we lose a huge divisional game to a bad Volunteer football team, but Shaw suffered what appeared to be a serious knee injury. I personally expected the worst, and figured the best case scenario would have him returning late in the season.
But as Shaw has done so many times in his career, he set aside the pain and dressed for the Missouri game, even though we didn’t expect him to play. Dylan Thompson was not bad that night, but with the Gamecocks down 17-0, Steve Spurrier asked Shaw if he could play. We needed a spark, he said.
Not only did Shaw play, but he cemented his legacy on that night in a comeback for the ages.
This past Saturday Connor Shaw became the winningest quarterback in South Carolina history. This coming Saturday Shaw will run the zone read and throw the deep post for the last time at Williams Brice Stadium. One month from now, Shaw will don the garnet and black for the final time.
I wish I could be there Saturday, I really do. Because those of you who are will be seeing the best quarterback in South Carolina history, by almost any measure, for the last time on his home field. And I hope when he is introduced there are 80,000 plus fans on their feet saluting him for what he has done for this program.
There are those of you who will debate and disagree over whether Shaw is the best, and that’s fine. We can talk statistics and arm strength and measurables until we’re blue in the face.
But there is one measure on which we can all agree, and the most important legacy he will leave on South Carolina football.
Connor Shaw is a winner.