COLUMBIA - Mike Davis would give the same, coy smile every time. Ask South Carolina's sophomore running back about an ailing body part, and he'd shrug as he rolled his eyes.
"What injury?" Davis would answer reporters after games this season.
Ask Davis how he felt, and watch as he dodged the question like it were an SEC linebacker. He could be hobbled on one foot, stinging in one shoulder, gutting through pain in his ribs - and feeling just fine.
It was a no-excuse philosophy Davis approached each game. Admirable, yes. Yet also misleading. Davis didn't play his best football at the end of a breakout fall, mostly for reasons outside his control. Last week, the Gamecocks' star tailback admitted he's trying to return to full strength before the Capital One Bowl.
"I hope I'll be 100 percent by the time we get to Florida," Davis said. "But, you know, it's going to be a lot of hard work, and it's going to be a lot of hard running."
South Carolina is on holiday break until Thursday, when it will travel to Orlando for its game against Wisconsin on New Year's Day. A lot of focus will be on the No. 19 Badgers' powerful running game against the No. 8 Gamecocks' stout run defense, and justifiably so. Wisconsin ranks eighth nationally in rushing, while South Carolina is second in the SEC stopping the run.
It's a strength-on-strength matchup, but don't underestimate the importance of South Carolina's run offense. Whichever team uses the ground game more effectively will control the tempo. It could be the deciding factor.
Unlike the Badgers, USC doesn't evenly distribute carries between two running backs. In the spotlight will be Davis, a workhorse who finished the season third in the SEC with 194 rushing attempts.
Lately, there has been nothing but "hard running" for the sophomore. Davis breezed his way to 1,000 yards this season, passing that milestone after only nine games. Since then, he's combined for 76 yards on 28 carries against Florida and Clemson. He stayed on the sidelines against Coastal Carolina.
After leading the SEC in rushing most of the fall, Davis finished fourth in the league with 1,134 yards. At one time this season, Davis also led the SEC in rushing touchdowns. Now, his 11 touchdowns on the ground are tied for fifth in the conference with a pair of quarterbacks - Auburn's Nick Marshall and Mississippi State's Dak Prescott.
"I wouldn't say I was wearing down," Davis said. "It was just, more and more people were keying on me. Clemson, they had eight, nine guys in the box and bringing the safety down. So, you know, it's hard to run with eight guys in the box."
"He had nowhere to go," coach Steve Spurrier said. "We didn't block very well. . We were whiffing up front. We were whiffing and not getting any movement."
When healthy, Davis was one of the elite running backs in college football this season. He exceeded 100 yards from scrimmage in seven of South Carolina's eight games against SEC opponents. In 2014, he could be a Heisman Trophy contender.
Still, the key is his health, something he rarely had in the season's final month.
"He's been banged up and bruised a lot throughout the season," older brother James Davis told The Post and Courier before South Carolina's game against Florida in mid-November. "But you know Mike. He's going to play. He's going to do whatever it takes to help his team."
That was six weeks ago.
What about now? Was Davis' low production against Clemson and Florida more about the opposing defense or his own health? How close is the sophomore to 100 percent?
"I can't tell you that," Davis said.
"Stay in that training room," backup Shon Carson interjected after practice Friday.
"Yeah," Davis said. "I guess I'll be in there tomorrow morning and afternoon. So, I can't tell you where I'm at."
And with that, Davis offered a slight smile.
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