COLUMBIA — The game was big enough for a veteran quarterback to feel weak in the knees. And Dylan Thompson was no veteran quarterback.
WHO: No. 20 South Carolina (5-2, 3-2 SEC) at No. 5 Missouri (7-0, 3-0)
WHEN: Saturday, 7 p.m.
WHERE: Columbia, Mo.
LINE: Missouri by 3
Thompson is a full-time backup, cast in South Carolina starter Connor Shaw’s shadow. Only, as the Gamecocks prepared for their rivalry game at Clemson last season, Shaw’s shadow was on the sideline. USC’s starting quarterback was out with a sprained left foot. The biggest game of the season belonged to Thompson.
It was his chance to shine, his responsibility to shoulder the pressure. No time to panic.
Thompson played brilliantly. Cool and calm, unbelievably poised, he tossed three touchdown passes and led the Gamecocks to a 10-point road win over the Tigers.
“Dylan is always ready,” running back Mike Davis said this week. “That’s just the type of person he is.”
Those are reassuring words from a teammate, because Thompson faces a similar situation this week — only the stage is even bigger.
With its SEC East hopes on the line, No. 20 South Carolina travels to No. 5 Missouri for a 7 p.m. kickoff Saturday on ESPN2. Once again, it’s Thompson’s game. His chance to shine. His responsibility to shoulder the pressure.
Once again, Thompson is preparing for a huge road game against a team called the Tigers. Though, he admitted, last season’s Clemson game only helps so much.
“It’s a new team, new game,” Thompson said. “Missouri’s a great team. They’ve got a good crowd. We just have to be ready for that and take it. This week’s the biggest game we’ve played yet, so let’s just focus on that.”
Shaw’s status this week is uncertain, with coaches playing a bit of gamesmanship. The senior quarterback suffered a left knee sprain late in USC’s loss at Tennessee last weekend. Shaw has returned from the seemingly impossible, most recently last month when he sprained this throwing shoulder at Central Florida but started the next week against Kentucky.
This week, Shaw could be a backup. He could play sparingly. He could watch all four quarters from the sideline.
“Uh, you never know,” quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus said, smiling. “We’ll see. We’ll see. He’ll get better every day. He goes to rehab. He’s rehabbing every day, and he’s good with all that stuff to. He takes care of himself and does what he has to do to get rehab. So we’ll see how the next couple days go.”
Regardless, coach Steve Spurrier said Thompson will start. As the junior prepares for Saturday, he’s expecting to play the entire game.
“I would think so,” Thompson said. “Anytime you’re starting, obviously, you want to feel that way. I’m just excited for our team. It’s a good opportunity for us, going to Missouri.”
It’s ironic — though, fitting with how this season has gone in the SEC East — that the division title could be decided by a pair of backup quarterbacks. For Missouri, Maty Mauk has proven to be capable as a freshman. He replaced starter James Franklin last week, helping guide the Tigers to a home win over Florida.
At season’s beginning, nobody would have predicted that Thompson and Mauk would start in the division’s biggest game. If Thompson seems unaffected by the magnitude of what Saturday could mean — either pulling USC back into prime position in the SEC East race, or practically eliminating it from the hunt — that’s because he is.
Thompson has been here before. It’s nothing new. After Wednesday’s practice, as he called this weekend his team’s biggest game of the season, his demeanor was fit for a glorified exhibition.
“In the big scheme of things, it’s not that big,” Thompson said. “You’ve just got to take it for what it is and roll with it. I’m just excited for the opportunity.”
Mangus said the most important thing to quell a quarterback’s nerves is live snaps. Thompson has plenty of those. Even when Shaw is healthy, it’s not uncommon for the backup to enter for a drive here, a few plays there.
Unlike most backup quarterbacks, Thompson knows he has a good chance of playing in most games. It sharpens his preparation for the week. He knows how to study an opponent as if he were the starter.
It’s a good thing. This week, it’s Thompson’s game.
“Dylan’s a good player, and he’ll get his chance to go this week,” Mangus said. “He’s had a good practice a couple days, but he always does. Dylan gets himself ready like he’s a starter, and that’s why I don’t worry about Dylan. He’ll be ready to roll.”