COLUMBIA, S.C. — It's easy for Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson to share the wealth — and notoriety that goes with guiding a top-10 program — when they're great friends away from football ... and mirroring one another on the field.
In South Carolina's 27-10 home thumping of North Carolina on Thursday, which was halted by a 1 hour-, 44-minute rain/lightning delay, the quarterbacks had the dual distinction of registering touchdowns on their first passes of the evening — with Shaw hitting Shaq Roland for a 65-yard rainbow score just 79 seconds into the game and Thompson finding tight end Kane Whitehurst for an easy 29-yard TD, with just 44 seconds left in the opening quarter.
After that, the No. 6 Gamecocks methodically dispatched of the rival Tar Heels, keeping their border-state neighbors out of the end zone for the final 33 minutes.
"I appreciate you hanging around for those uneventful eight minutes (post-delay)," Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said after the game, upon entering a full media room.
Spurrier was noticeably upbeat about the victory; but he also found time to lament his offense's ineffectiveness on third down (5 of 14) and defense's lack of overall conditioning — in terms of handling North Carolina's frenzied, high-tempo attack.
"There were a lot of good plays, and a lot of bad plays," he said.
Spurrier even answered a specific question about star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney's conditioning in the heat (low 90s) and high humidity of Williams-Brice Stadium, without actually saying anything concrete.
"I don't have to say it: You write what you see," Spurrier stealthily told a reporter, just seconds after joking about Clowney nearly getting a sack late in the fourth quarter, after the long and unplanned weather intermission.
"I told (Clowney), 'You oughta be well-rested now.'" Spurrier said.
Clowney's post-game assessment was rather direct: "I was pretty tired, but you have to play through that. I was still coming off the ball, and that's what matters. I might be bent over sometimes, but when that ball snaps, I was getting off.
"(The UNC players) were tired," Clowney continued. "They were telling me at the end of the game they were tired, too. It's just one of those games, you have to push yourself."
All told, UNC collected 293 total yards off 79 plays. Heels quarterback Bryn Renner passed for 194 yards and one touchdown (to Quinshad Davis). He was sacked three times ... likely the result of extra attention being paid to Clowney.
As for Shaw (149 yards passing) and Thompson, they combined for only 12 of 21 completions for 178 yards. But their first impressions — in the form of TD passes to Roland (two catches, 75 yards) and Whitehurst — were enough to carry the freight in the hard-fought win over UNC.
For Shaw's touchdown, he lured the Tar Heels safeties into biting on the play-option fake, borne out of an under-center snap. He also reveled in the precision of Roland's skinny-post pattern, against 1-on-1 coverage.
"It was a great route by Shaq, and he was able to run through the ball" for the touchdown, said Shaw.
In 2012, Shaw got off to a slow start, sustaining an injury in the opener against Vandy and then missing the second game against East Carolina. He posted decent numbers against UAB the following week, but everything started to take shape once SEC play resumed with Missouri.
Against the Tigers, Shaw accounted for 290 total yards and two touchdowns; that outing sparked a four-game run of nine touchdowns (one rushing) and a pass-efficiency rate of 60 percent. And against Kentucky and Georgia, Shaw scampered for 70-plus yards on back-to-back Saturdays.
Fast forward to the present, as Shaw is now 18-3 as the Gamecocks' starter.
When reading the box score, Clowney only boasts modest stats for the evening (three tackles, no sacks).
But the collateral effect of his presence was undeniable, as North Carolina ran so many plays to the right — opposite the grand Gamecock — that it's hard to remember any sequence of back-to-back plays in Clowney's general vicinity.
Therein lies the difficulty of selling a defensive end to a national legion of Heisman Trophy voters:
To capture that award, it requires a combination of elite-level team success, marketable individual statistics, TV charisma and one definitive highlight to be shown on a continuous loop — similar to Clowney's instantaneous decapitation tackle/fumble recovery against Michigan in last January's Outback Bowl.
For all his athletic gifts, though, Clowney can only do so much when the opposition moves heaven and earth to avoid his half of the field.
Over the spring and summer months, traditionally the 'down' periods for sports talk radio, the notion of Clowney sitting out the season — in favor of preserving his standing as the No. 1 prospect for the 2014 NFL Draft — got a few days' traction in regional and national circles, even though the junior never entertained the idea of being a seasonal healthy scratch.
At least publicly.
The rationale: At 6-foot-6 and a chiseled 274 pounds, Clowney had already demonstrated enough athletic potential in his freshman and sophomore campaigns to clinch the No. 1 draft slot next April, regardless of the competition.
And by playing out the 2013 season, Clowney was assuming a sizable risk of injury — particularly catastrophic ones that would hinder his pro-earnings capacity ... roughly five minutes after the Gamecocks' next bowl appearance.
(In the fourth quarter, Clowney was clipped in the back of the leg. But the incident wasn't enough to pull him from the action.)
Never mind that Clowney has a laundry list of team goals for the 2013 season, specifically helping the Gamecocks claim the SEC East title and reach their first BCS bowl in school history.
Never mind that South Carolina — with home games against North Carolina, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, Florida and Clemson — fortuitously avoids LSU and Alabama this season, a recipe for genuinely contending for a national title.
Never mind that Clowney reportedly took out a million-dollar insurance policy in the spring, protecting against any major injuries that might occur in the short term.
Never mind that Clowney has a relentless passion for dominating every snap, regardless of the opponent. (On Thursday, he expressed his love for sacks, far exceeding the joy of a defensive touchdown.)
And never mind that, in the Heisman Trophy's illustrious history, spanning 77 years, a defense-only talent has yet to win college football's most prestigious individual award.
Besides, it's not like Clowney's a lock to be No. 1 come April.
Clowney may be a premium talent, but even top-shelf defenders are at the mercy of quarterbacks — and other offensive stars (particularly left tackles) — every April.
Yes, Mario Williams took No. 1 honors in the 2006 draft (Houston Texans), trumping blue-chippers like Reggie Bush, Vince Young, D'Brickashaw Ferguson, A.J. Hawk, Vernon Davis, Jay Cutler, Haloti Ngata and Tamba Hali, among others, for the top spot.
But in general, can't-miss defenders are seldom the highest priority to the NFL club holding the No. 1 pick.
Since 1977, just four defensive ends (Kenneth Sims, 1982; Bruce Smith, 1985; Courtney Brown, 2000; Mario Williams, 2006) have come off the board first; and for those years, only Jim McMahon, Art Schlichter, Vince Young, Jay Cutler and Matt Leinart were subjectively viewed as franchise saviors at quarterback.
(None of the five quarterbacks are likely headed for the Hall of Fame someday.)
Bottom line: Clowney may have the size, speed and superlative raw talent of a No. 1 selection, but it might not matter if NFL teams like the Jaguars, Raiders, Browns, Eagles, Chiefs or Cardinals prefer QBs Teddy Bridgewater (Louisville), Tajh Boyd (Clemson), Aaron Murray (Georgia), Stephen Morris (Miami) or left-tackle behemoths Jake Matthews (Texas A&M), Taylor Lewan (Michigan) or Cyrus Kouandjio (Alabama) as franchise building blocks.
In the Spurrier era, the Gamecocks are now 7-0 when opening the season on a nationally televised Thursday game, with an aggregate score of 165-54.
On this night, with the pregame spotlight firmly placed on Clowney, South Carolina admirably distributed the glory amongst a cluster of teammates, splitting the TD passes/receptions and then benefiting from tailback Mike Davis's 75-yard touchdown run in the third quarter — a game-altering play that turned a competitive game into a largely academic result ... in the SEC's favor.
"We worked all summer on eliminating big plays, or limiting big plays," said UNC head coach Larry Fedora. "You just can't give up big plays like (Davis's run), and you can't (fumble) a punt on the 50-yard line. You can't do a lot of things we did tonight."
The SEC-ACC rivalry was a secondary storyline leading up to Thursday's opener. But it's still a hot-button topic for supporters of both conferences — given the SEC's dynastic run of seven straight BCS national champions (Auburn, LSU, Florida twice and Alabama thrice) ... and its road "upsets" of Florida State (vs. Florida) and Clemson (vs. South Carolina) last Thanksgiving weekend.
At the time, the Seminoles and Tigers were vying for realistic spots in the national title game and a BCS bowl, respectively.
And Thursday's victory, while expected for South Carolina, is just another spoke in the wheel of a conference that has no peer right now, from head to toe.
With North Carolina in the rear-view mirror, South Carolina can now focus on the seismic task of taking on No. 5 Georgia in Athens next weekend.
UGA, which travels to Clemson on Saturday, is the only school in the country to open with a pair of top-10 clashes.
For the Gamecocks, though, it's a chance to get a leg up on the SEC East powers-that-be, while perhaps granting their quarterback Shaw — a Georgia native — a chance to post a 4-0 career mark against the Bulldogs.