Fragility of title race confronts South Carolina

NASHVILLE — The fragility of a conference championship fell squarely on the right shoulder of Connor Shaw. He walked away with the game ball, his South Carolina teammates walked away with perspective.

When Shaw left for the locker room right on the cusp of halftime, grimacing and clutching his right arm, a collective breath was drawn. A defender’s helmet had found a soft spot in his shoulder’s padding. He said he couldn’t feel his arm.

This was the No. 9 South Carolina Gamecocks, projected to be one of the premier teams in the Southeastern Conference race, a Steve Spurrier-led bunch that puts up points and laughs and makes sly remarks about opponents. And yet, the scoreboard read 10-10 and the Head Ball Coach’s signal caller didn’t look good. Neither did their title aspirations, whether they be of the league or national variety.

“Everybody kinda got uptight,” sophomore tackle Kelcy Quarles said.

With Shaw on the sidelines, still favoring a shoulder that was officially classified as a contusion, backup Dylan Thompson gave it a go. The result: two drives, two incomplete passes, two sacks and a loss of 14 yards. In the meantime, Vanderbilt took a 13-10 lead and successfully choreographed cheers of “Anchor Down” cascaded down from the home team’s horseshoe venue. Hometown media began commenting how this was the best atmosphere in years. No, Thompson was not the answer for the Commodores’ disciplined and hyped-up defense — one that allowed just 272 total yards.

Shaw had to be. So in he came and in he stayed.

“He was hurting bad, but he was not gonna come out,” standout running back Marcus Lattimore said.

It was, coincidentally, Lattimore’s health that captured the nation’s attention in the pregame build-up to college football’s season opener, with all eyes focused squarely on an ACL torn last season against Mississippi State. The junior exhibited All-American potential before the injury, and conflicting rumors had trickled out of Columbia regarding the his true status. How would he cut? Would he be able to accelerate through the hole with his usual burst?

Everyone was watching and texting and tweeting when he fumbled his first carry back from the injury. Doubts crept in. His knee did not look “fine,” especially not on a rain-slicked field in Nashville.

Then his second carry went for a 29-yard scoring gallop, alleviating all fears, all doubts. The balance between gimpy and healthy can be that sensitive. Marcus Lattimore was back — “Words can’t describe it. I remember watching all those games from the sidelines,” he said of his triumphant return to the national spotlight — and South Carolina was, indeed, in a title hunt. He finished with 110 yards and his ninth career multi-touchdown game on the ground. Later, Spurrier and the Gamecocks would even return to their old habits of leaning on Lattimore in the fourth quarter, piling on 43 yards to close out James Franklin & Co.

Once again, he looked like this offense’s saving grace.

But Lattimore’s subtle heroics took a backseat to Shaw’s grittiness. With the college football world watching, Shaw returned with six minutes remaining in the third quarter only to take multiple licks on the injured shoulder. One such hit, on a scamper toward the goal line, left him writhing in pain from the end zone.

He didn’t come out.

“There was no time to panic. I mean, we had to keep level-headed,” said Shaw, who went 7-for-11 passing and accounted for 159 total yards. “I knew that we would bounce back … we’ve been through this before.”

South Carolina eventually established a 17-13 lead after Lattimore’s second score, and held off Vanderbilt’s last-ditch heave for a miracle comeback. And even then, the ball fell right through the arms of Vanderbilt receiver Jordan Matthews. The margin of error can be so minuscule at times, such a microscopic difference dividing a win and a loss. The Gamecocks — and their anxious fans — experienced that Thursday night. Shaw’s shoulder scare highlighted a oft-ignored fact of preseason prognostications: One injury can alter everything.

If Southern Cal loses Matt Barkley or if Georgia loses Jarvis Jones, all bets are off. The balance between good and great can be that sensitive.

“We made a few plays here and there, but didn’t do much at all really,” Spurrier said. “It was a gutsy performance by Connor Shaw. We couldn’t hit much passing so we had to just try and run and get a touchdown or two, let our defense play … Maybe this was good for us.”

One leg of a season-long national title race, one that Shaw’s team can certainly find itself in given the high quality of opponents on its schedule, has been decided. The winner may have limped over the finish line, but it will survive and advance. Sometimes in college football’s cutthroat nature, that’s all that matters.

As the remainder of Shaw’s teammates filed across Dudley Field toward the team bus, Chick-fil-A bags and Gatorades in hand, he talked with his family outside Gate 1. They were all smiles, overflowing with relief. They were looking up at South Carolina’s quarterback, asking about his treatment in the upcoming days, but also probably wondering how much different things could have been on this road trip.

Everyone was.