- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The only thing missing was the “Rocky” music blaring in the background.
South Carolina junior quarterback Connor Shaw was battered and bruised on Thursday night, and his right shoulder was throbbing.
For a while, it looked like he might not even be able to come back for the second half.
But he came back all right, and despite a painful shoulder contusion, led No. 9 South Carolina back from the dead in the fourth quarter for a season-opening 17-13 victory over Vanderbilt at Vanderbilt Stadium.
“It’s just guts. He’s our leader,” South Carolina junior running back Marcus Lattimore said of his quarterback. “He’s determined and he loves this team, and he’s going to do whatever he can to win games.”
Even when he has just one good shoulder.
Shaw took a knee to his shoulder in the second quarter. He went to the sideline in tremendous pain, which sent a ripple up and down the Gamecocks’ bench. He said the hit popped a nerve, and he couldn’t feel his arm for a while.
“I just kept trying to work it out,” said Shaw, who finished with 92 rushing yards on 14 carries.
Shaw is as tough as they come, and for him to even leave the game, it was obvious to everybody that he was hurting.
“It was no time to panic,” Shaw said. “I knew we would bounce back.”
Shaw kept bouncing back up every time he would land on his ailing shoulder. His 12-yard dash to the Vanderbilt 1, setting up the Gamecocks’ game-winning touchdown, was the kind of play that lifts an entire team.
And, clearly, Shaw’s romp was inspiring on a couple of different fronts for the Gamecocks, who found a way to gut things out when they weren’t anywhere close to being on top of their game.
“Maybe it’s good for us,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. “You look at the preseason press … we thought we were hot stuff, and then we almost got that stuff beat out of us.”
There was a lot that didn’t go right for the Gamecocks in their nationally televised opener. They turned the ball over early, including a fumble by Lattimore on his first carry. They gave up a big play on defense for a touchdown, and the passing game (67 yards) was non-existent.
But as Spurrier noted, they were also going against a salty bunch of Commodores, who are a far cry from being the perennial SEC doormat of years gone by.
“We were fortunate to beat Vandy. They don’t have a bunch of slow dudes like they used to,” Spurrier quipped.
Plus, there’s no such thing as a “bad” SEC win, especially when you go on the road to get it.
“We held it together when a lot of teams probably wouldn’t have,” said South Carolina tight end Justice Cunningham, who miraculously held on for a clutch catch on the Gamecocks’ winning drive despite being leveled.
“Our quarterback was hurting. We were behind in the fourth quarter, and we hadn’t played our best football. We’ll build off this. These are the kinds of games you have to win in this league.”
It was also encouraging for the Gamecocks to see No. 21 back in there at tailback.
Lattimore might not be all the way back to his old self after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament midway through last season, but he’s still better than most and will only get better and more explosive as this season progresses.
Lattimore carried the ball 23 times for 110 yards. Not surprisingly, he was the guy the Gamecocks turned to in the fourth quarter.
“I just had to forget about [the fumble on his first carry],” said Lattimore, who now has nine 100-yard rushing games in his career. “After a few runs, I started to feel like myself again.”
It remains to be seen when Shaw will feel like himself again. He received a shot after the game and will take it easy the next couple of days.
He didn’t sound concerned, though, that it would be something that would linger.
In fact, he said he would “absolutely” be playing on Sept. 8 when South Carolina returns home to face East Carolina. After that, the Gamecocks get Alabama-Birmingham at home, and then it’s back to the SEC fray with Missouri coming to Columbia, S.C.
“He’ll be sore for a while, but I think he’ll be OK,” Spurrier said.
The Gamecocks, even though they didn’t win any style points, should also be OK.
Grinding out games just may be the way this team rolls this season.