COLUMBIA — Before South Carolina’s players and coaches boarded the charter buses at their hotel Saturday morning, a group of players approached the hotel room where quarterback Dylan Thompson spent his final private minutes awaiting his first ever start.
Thompson knew since Thursday that he would start in place of junior Connor Shaw, whose bruised throwing shoulder still ached too much. A sophomore, Thompson had already done everything he could to prepare — absorbed criticism in practice, watched film, prayed. But his teammates wanted to offer a few last words of encouragement before Thompson took the 10-mile bus ride across town to Williams-Brice Stadium, to the most significant moment of his career.
Thompson’s wide receivers, tight ends and a couple offensive linemen came to his room, unannounced, and told him, “We’ve got your back.”
Hours later, Thompson said the visit “was huge for me.” For one day, he knew this was his team, and he played with all the confidence of a seasoned starter, dicing East Carolina’s perpetually flimsy defense in a 48-10 victory for ninth-ranked USC (2-0). Thompson completed 21 of 37 passes for 330 yards and three touchdowns. He showed deft touch on his passes from start to finish. He hit Damiere Byrd for a 53-yard deep ball on the game’s fourth play, setting up a touchdown. He buried the Pirates (1-1) with a perfectly placed 30-yard lob to DeAngelo Smith in the end zone in the second quarter that put USC up 21-0.
And he ended the day with an amusing play that highlighted his growing boldness — a change from his skittish play in the season opening win at Vanderbilt, where he replaced the injured Shaw. In the fourth quarter Saturday, Thompson sprinted for the end zone on third and 19 from the ECU 21. Instead of stepping out of bounds two yards shy of the first-down marker, he lowered his head, popped a defender, knocked the guy’s helmet off, but lost the ball.
Thompson smiled later as he called it “my dumbest play of the day,” but the mistake really didn’t matter. USC already led 41-10. Because coach Steve Spurrier summarily inserted third-stringer Seth Strickland, the play was the stadium’s fitting final image of Thompson, charging head-on into an obstacle. Many who witnessed it surely wondered just why Spurrier seemed so concerned about boosting this kid’s confidence last week during practice.
“His confidence was the best I’ve ever seen it,” Spurrier said.
It does not mean he is USC’s starter. If Shaw is healthy by Wednesday or Thursday, he will start against Alabama-Birmingham at home, Spurrier said. Leading into the ECU game, Spurrier never seriously considered playing Shaw, he said. Thompson would have to win it.
“I don’t think we should forget how great of a player Connor is,” Thompson said. “My job as a backup is to always be ready. All week, I kind of got my mind focused on: This is my week to show what I can do.”
But Thompson’s performance, albeit against a bad defensive team, did alleviate at least some worries about his ability to handle this stage. Those seemed legitimate after the Vanderbilt game, when his two drives to start the second half lost 12 and two yards, before Shaw returned.
Thompson leaned on his faith last week to rebound. In prayer, he reminded himself that “football is just a game.” He found comfort in a Bible verse Spurrier gave him Friday: “The Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
Right before Saturday’s kickoff, tailback Marcus Lattimore, Thompson’s friend since they were high school sophomores, approached Thompson. Lattimore told him the same thing Thompson always tells Lattimore before games: “Remember who you’re playing for.” Thompson knew Lattimore was referring to God.
“He just smiled at me, and he was ready to go after that,” Lattimore said.
The teammates who came to his hotel room already noticed Thompson’s progress. They are fully aware that Spurrier’s presence, as a Heisman Trophy winning quarterback, is “a lot of pressure on a quarterback, to kind of live up to what he wants,” said tight end Rory Anderson. They see how blunt Spurrier is with his quarterbacks. So they admired what they saw from Thompson last week in practice.
“Throughout the week, he just took more of the criticism better and better,” Anderson said.
Thompson transformed with every practice pass and every hour he spent last week reviewing ECU video with Shaw, answering Shaw’s questions about what he noticed on the screen. Gradually, Thompson became a quarterback who looked nothing like someone whose experience before Vanderbilt amounted to four appearances in mop-up duty last season.
And when he needed to, when his teammates could count on no one else, he backed up what he told Anderson on Friday: “I’m just ready to go out there and play.”