NASHVILLE, Tenn. — South Carolina had just finished a stressful, and at times painful, season-opening victory Thursday night at Vanderbilt, and here came the Gamecocks’ defensive coordinator, Lorenzo Ward, jogging off the field. Sweat beaded on his bald head and a smile creased his face.
“It ain’t ever easy, right?” he said, barely breaking stride as he went to the locker room.
Openers can be notoriously hairy, and No. 9 USC’s 17-13 win at Vanderbilt would certainly qualify. The Gamecocks trailed 13-10 before a nine-play, 66-yard TD drive that ended with 11:25 left in the game.
Though they did not look particularly impressive offensively — their 272 yards were their third-fewest since the beginning of 2009 — their upcoming schedule certainly gives them an opportunity to be 5-0 heading into the Oct. 6 home game against Georgia, which could wind up being a de facto Southeastern Conference East Division championship.
USC gets East Carolina next Saturday, then UAB, Missouri and Kentucky, with only the latter game on the road. The Gamecocks could probably beat most of those teams with a less-than-effective passing game, but coach Steve Spurrier wants to see more from that facet of his team after Thursday’s impotent showing.
USC’s 67 passing yards Thursday were its fewest ever under Spurrier, who has now coached the Gamecocks for 91 games. It marked just the third time ever that USC has passed for fewer than 100 yards under Spurrier. Of course, the Gamecocks threw just 15 times — their second-fewest attempts in the Spurrier Era.
“Man, I hope we can play a lot better offensively next week,” said Spurrier.
A lot hinges on the health of Connor Shaw. There are clearly no other quarterbacks on USC’s roster capable right now of winning a game. Dylan Thompson was a disaster Thursday, but Spurrier said he will remain the backup for the East Carolina game. Shaw expects to play in that game after bruising his right shoulder late in the first half. Thompson replaced him, but Shaw returned with 6:02 left in the third quarter and led the game-winning TD drive.
Spurrier said part of USC’s issues in the passing game stemmed from poor blocking, part from errant throws. Shaw was 7-of-11 passing for all 67 of the yards and an interception. Once again, USC had to count largely on its defense to win, as it did so often last season.
Other than a 78-yard TD pass and a 32-yard pass, USC gave up two field goals and 166 yards. The Gamecocks did it despite Vanderbilt sliding its protection toward defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who had three tackles (two solo), including two for a loss and a sack on Vanderbilt’s first two drives — and just one tackle (assisted) after that. Ward said he must find a way to combat these protection-sliding strategies designed to limit Clowney’s disruptiveness.
That the Gamecocks could win a road opener against a division opponent despite its non-existent passing game and Shaw’s injury is another testament to their ability to handle tense, dramatic games. They are now 5-1 since the beginning of last season in games decided by five points or fewer and 4-2 when trailing during the fourth quarter.
Ward was right. With this team, things rarely seem easy.