Connor Shaw battles knee sprain, flu in legendary performance

South Carolina's Connor Shaw, center, holds the Mayors Cup as he celebrates with teammates Cody Gibson, left, and Jordan Diaz, right, after the team defeated Missouri 27-24 in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, in Columbia, Mo. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)

Connor Shaw missed movie night. It’s a team tradition at South Carolina, a bonding activity. On the eve before a road game, football players gather to watch a Friday night flick.

Only, last Friday night, Shaw was absent.

The senior quarterback missed Saturday morning breakfast, too. And the team’s 10:30 a.m. walkthrough on Faurot Field in Missouri, where he would later give a legendary performance in a 27-24 double-overtime win. As kickoff approached, Shaw stayed away from his team. Already nursing a sprained knee, he was sick with “a flu bug” that required fluids and rest.

“He stayed back (at the team hotel), had a little pregame meal and felt good by game time,” coach Steve Spurrier said.

Shaw’s absence from pregame activities wasn’t supposed to be important. He wasn’t expected to play Saturday night in the Gamecocks’ biggest game of the season, a matchup against then-No. 5 Missouri that could go a long way toward deciding the SEC East champion.

Except, of course, Shaw did play.

It’s one thing to lead a team to victory through an injury. Add the flu, a road environment, a national prime-time television audience, no practice reps with the starters during game week, and no time to adjust to the game when he entered midway through the third quarter? The logic doesn’t add up. Regardless, Shaw told his coaches before kickoff he could play if the team needed him.

Midway through the third quarter, Spurrier told Shaw he was needed.

“Dylan wasn’t all that bad,” Spurrier said of backup Dylan Thompson, who completed 15 of 27 passes for 222 yards and one interception in his first start of the season. “… Just trying something different.”

Shaw completed 20 of 29 passes for 201 yards and two touchdowns. He completed 14 of 18 passes for 168 yards and both touchdowns in the fourth quarter alone, directing the comeback.

Since Missouri joined the SEC last year, Shaw has enjoyed playing against the Tigers. He’s completed 40 of 50 passes for 450 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions in two games, both wins.

“Coach Spurrier, they don’t call him a great coach for no reason,” Thompson said. “I think he made a great choice tonight, and I support him 100 percent.”

Maybe it wasn’t a true miracle, but it sure felt that way in the moments after both teams exited Faurot Field. Shaw’s night began with a 17-point deficit. He took over an offense that had been shut out through 38 minutes of football. Somehow, his evening ended with him hoisting The Mayor’s Cup, given to the winner in the “Battle of Columbia.”

Shaw was given every reason to have the worst game of his season. He ended up with the most memorable performance of his career.

On Sunday, Spurrier tried to explain it all.

“We had nowhere to go but up,” Spurrier said. “We were shut out at that point. Maybe it made him (Shaw) stay in the pocket a little longer and throw the ball. He stayed in there and made all the throws.”

It’s not unprecedented, a star athlete playing better when they’re sick or injured. Sometimes, the body has a weird way of being more energy efficient — the mind focused more intently — when a player is feeling less than 100 percent. Spurrier was frustrated the previous week at Tennessee with Shaw’s inability to hang in the pocket. The coach thought his quarterback tucked to run too quickly, missing opportunities for big plays in the passing game.

Against Missouri, Shaw made those big plays.

That was the method behind Saturday’s madness, but Shaw didn’t care how he pulled it off. He sat late Saturday night, in the cold outside Memorial Stadium’s visiting locker room, his smile glowing.

“God is great, man,” said Shaw, who got through the game with no further injury to his knee. “I wasn’t even supposed to be playing this game. I was considered out two or three weeks. So give all the glory up top. I’m thankful to be able to play in this game, and I feel extremely blessed.”