COLUMBIA — The only South Carolina quarterback with a championship ring on his finger steadied himself behind the radio mic. It was a cold, dark night in Missouri. This was a nightmare.
Tommy Suggs watched as his team collapsed. The former Gamecocks quarterback struggled to describe everyone’s frustration over the airwaves. Missouri led South Carolina 17-0 late in the third quarter. Suggs couldn’t believe it.
“I’m a Gamecock, and a Gamecock never dies. We fight till we die,” Suggs said. “But I was close to dying on that one.”
Suggs understood what was happening. He’d seen it before. A team falls apart, everything goes wrong, the hole gets deeper. Suggs knew something needed to change.
Then Connor Shaw entered the game. Like a switch, everything flipped.
“Sitting there broadcasting the game, I could smell it. I could feel it,” said Suggs, who led the Gamecocks to the 1969 ACC championship. “I could see it changing, and Missouri could too. … We started turning it. I didn’t know if we were going to win or not, but I knew we were at least going to score a few touchdowns and make it close.
“Sometimes you get in a funk like that, and you need to shake it up a little bit. That’s what Connor did. When he came in, he shook it up.”
What happened over the final 20 minutes was historic. Shaw was legendary, dragging South Carolina to a miraculous comeback. The double-overtime victory over Mizzou is the only reason USC still has a chance to reach Atlanta, site of the SEC championship game. Shaw’s role in the victory will be remembered forever. Suggs called it his “signature moment,” defining a career that comes to a crossroads this week.
No. 10 South Carolina hosts No. 6 Clemson for a 7 p.m. kickoff Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium, where Shaw is 16-0 as a starter. The first top-10 showdown between the two rivals has plenty on the line. For Shaw, it’s the distinction of being remembered as the greatest quarterback in Gamecocks history. Beat Clemson a second time, and there will be no doubting his credentials.
‘A foxhole guy’
Even as his career ends, Shaw isn’t consumed with thoughts of his legacy. His tunnel vision — a trait he got from his father and high school coach, Lee Shaw — is something Suggs admires.
Last week, when Shaw’s 25th victory as a starter surpassed former USC quarterback Todd Ellis’ career wins record, the senior dutifully admitted “it’s pretty special to me.” Then he moved on. Nothing to see here.
“He’s a foxhole guy,” said Ellis, now the Gamecocks’ play-by-play announcer and Suggs’ radio partner.
Ellis shared a brief moment with Shaw on Saturday night before ducking into a room to film Steve Spurrier’s show. Here was an official changing of the guard. The proudest record a quarterback could own now belonged to another.
For years, Ellis said, he wrote “the winningest quarterback in South Carolina history” on his resume. Never mind if it had little to do with his occupation, a trial lawyer. It was a point of pride. Now, the distinction was gone.
“He saw me, and I just hollered at him, ‘You sorry dog.’ I smiled at him, and he laughed,” Ellis said, chuckling. “I said, ‘Nobody knows better than me how hard it is to get what you just got.’ … I take pride in winning more games at South Carolina than anybody else, but I don’t care. My life revolves around current South Carolina wins, not those from 25 years ago.”
These are impossible heights for an unassuming quarterback who entered South Carolina’s program with meager expectations.
The first time Suggs met Shaw, he remembers thinking the kid was bigger in person than he expected. That was it. There were no signs he’d accomplish this much. Shaw was a three-star prospect in high school, far from a blue-chip signee.
It wasn’t until Shaw’s first game as a starter against Clemson — in only his eighth career start — that something special seemed possible. As a sophomore, Shaw completed 14 of 20 passes for 210 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in a 34-13 blowout. He added 107 rushing yards, including a 15-yard rushing touchdown that broke a tie before halftime. The Gamecocks never trailed again.
Afterward, the best description for Shaw’s performance was written on his T-shirt. It simply read, “Beast Mode.” Two years later, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has nothing but respect.
“Connor Shaw has just had a remarkable career,” Swinney said Tuesday. “I mean, he is one of those guys that for whatever reason, not many people nationally talk about him. He’s a very gritty player, he finds ways to win. His will to win, I think, is special.”
Shaw has slowly gotten more credit this season for his overall skillset. Still, he is overlooked nationally.
You won’t see him on anybody’s short list for the Heisman Trophy. Or the Maxwell Award. Or the Davey O’Brien.
Backup quarterback Dylan Thompson said Saturday his teammate doesn’t get the respect he deserves.
“Connor is playing great,” Thompson said. “In my opinion, he should be in New York (for the Heisman Trophy ceremony) in December. That’s just the way I feel. … I get to see day in and day out how he prepares every single week.”
Shaw doesn’t put up the raw, gaudy numbers required from a Heisman Trophy finalist. South Carolina’s offense is balanced enough to spread the ball. Regardless, as a game manager, there’s been no better quarterback in the country this season.
Shaw and Baylor’s Bryce Petty are the only quarterbacks to throw double-digit touchdown passes — both have at least 20 — with just one interception this year. Petty has been in the Heisman conversation for weeks.
With a 65.1 career completion percentage, Shaw is the most accurate passer in South Carolina history. He’s also the most dynamic runner. His 1,542 career rushing yards are most among USC quarterbacks.
“To be 25-5 is very special for Connor and our team,” USC coach Steve Spurrier said. “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. I don’t know how many quarterbacks in the country have 20 touchdowns and only one interception.
“He’s really played well. Again, hopefully he’ll have one of his best games here on Saturday night.”
‘The guy’s won 25 games’
The numbers back up Shaw’s candidacy as the best quarterback in USC history. They don’t define him.
His trademark is a comic book hero’s toughness. Twice this season, he has returned from what looked like devastating injuries without missing a game.
Then there are the examples away from the field. Outside the team hotel, as players boarded buses to the stadium in Missouri, Ellis passed Shaw. Nobody expected the senior to play that night. He badly sprained his right knee the previous week at Tennessee.
Shaw had another problem nobody outside the team knew about — the flu.
“Connor had a hat on, and I saw him there, gave him a fist pump,” Ellis said. “He looked god awful. He looked so sick. I told him to hang in there. This was a kid I thought looked like death worked over.”
Ironic, isn’t it, that Shaw’s signature game didn’t count toward his record. Thompson got the start that night, not Shaw. With his team down, nothing could keep him on the sideline.
That’s what Ellis will remember once Shaw is gone. These past four years — the past three as a starter — have been special. It nears the end Saturday night, the final time Shaw will play before the home crowd at Williams-Brice Stadium. Maybe he’ll finish his career with a championship ring on his finger.
“I’ve seen Connor be the most successful quarterback in the history of the school during a time it was playing its most difficult schedules,” Ellis said. “He’s won 25 games now, and it only took him 30 to get there, during the time we played in the heart of the SEC. That’s where it all starts with me — the guy’s won 25 games.
“I don’t know how he’ll be remembered, but … if he wins this last one at home, if he goes undefeated at home in his career — I don’t know if he dies at 97, that wouldn’t be the last thing somebody said to him.”