About 6:40 p.m. Saturday, South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw will jog onto the field under what should be thunderous applause to hug his mother and father and then get about the business of his final game in Williams-Brice Stadium.
The crowd will show its appreciation for an historic career, which includes a school-record 25 wins; a fantastic passing season, which has featured 20 touchdowns and one interception, and also because they will be watching Shaw do what perhaps he has done best and most consistently in his college career — run.
The 6-foot-1, 209-pound senior from Flowery Branch, Ga., has rushed for 417 yards this season and 1,542 in his career.
“This was Connor’s offense from high school,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. “We did a lot of that with the quarterback before him.”
As willing a runner as Stephen Garcia was, though, he was never as effective with his feet as Shaw. Discounting even the total yardage, which would be more impressive if college football rules didn’t stipulate that sack yardage takes away from a quarterback’s rushing total (Shaw has gained 2,046 yards in his career), what makes Shaw such a dangerous runner is timing.
Shaw, who played wide receiver his first two years in high school and had college scholarship offers at that position, has run for a first down 33 times this season. Nineteen of those runs have converted a third or fourth down.
“When plays break down, and you can somehow get out of the pocket, that’s something the coaches always say, ‘We are not going to take your legs away from you,’ ” Shaw said. “On third downs when the play breaks down, I think that is an advantage.”
Shaw’s ability to run for first downs has become as big a factor as anything in the success of South Carolina’s offense, which is ranked sixth in the SEC. His knack for stealing a first down when nothing else is available is not only a positive for the Gamecocks but demoralizing for an opponent, offensive line coach Shawn Elliott said.
The importance of it never has been more evident than in the past five games, when the ability was taken away. Of Shaw’s 33 first down runs this year, 28 came before he suffered a knee sprain against Tennessee on Oct. 19. In the three games after his injury, Shaw rushed for a first down once, and Spurrier noticed the difference.
“He takes off running, but he doesn’t make the first down,” the coach said.
Last week against Coastal Carolina, his mobility seemed to return as he rushed for four first downs while playing three series against the Chanticleers. That is partly attributable to the competition but partly attributable to improving health, Shaw said.
“I don’t think I got tackled once, maybe pushed out of bounds,” Shaw said. “I felt pretty good. (His knee) is the best it’s felt since the Tennessee game.”
That will come in handy against Clemson. Shaw missed last year’s game against the Tigers because of a foot injury, but his mobility gave Clemson fits in 2011. That day, he rushed for six first downs, including four on third down, and finished with 107 yards rushing in a 34-13 victory.
It was similar to the performance he put up against Georgia in 2012. In what might have been South Carolina’s most impressive win in history, Shaw rushed for six first downs in a 35-7 thrashing of the then-No. 5 Bulldogs.
“Connor does so many things that he doesn’t get a lot of credit for,” senior offensive lineman Ronald Patrick. “It’s been fun to watch.”
Shaw’s 2,400 yards of total offense this season are seventh all-time in school history.
“He’ll go down in the record books as, maybe, the best quarterback to ever play here, certainly could be considered that because of his win-loss record and statistically,” Spurrier said. “I don’t know how many quarterbacks in the country have 20 touchdowns and only one interception. That’s what it is right now. He’s really played well. Again, hopefully, he’ll have one of his best games here on Saturday night.”
Quarterbacks Connor Shaw for USC and Tajh Boyd for Clemson are running and passing threats. Comparing the stats: