Since becoming a starter midway through last season, South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw had been everything coach Steve Spurrier asked for — steady, overachieving, careful to avoid the ill-advised throw. These attributes helped make him 13-1 as a starter and leading the Southeastern Conference in quarterback efficiency.
In critical moments Saturday night, however, Spurrier might have wondered if Shaw’s often-frustrating predecessor, Stephen Garcia, had returned to the lineup.
“I don’t know if he got hit in the head tonight or not,” Spurrier said. “I kept asking (quarterbacks coach) G.A. (Mangus), ‘Did he get hit in the head somewhere?’ Some of his decision-making was a little off.”
Never more than when he faced third-and-6 from the South Carolina 29 in the fourth quarter. With the Gamecocks clinging to a 14-13 lead, he rolled left and tried to hit an open tight end, Buster Anderson. Instead, the ball went straight to LSU safety Eric Reid, who intercepted and returned it to the South Carolina 22. Five plays later, Tigers kicker Drew Alleman’s 22-yard field goal gave LSU a lead it would never relinquish in a 23-21 victory in Tiger Stadium.
Though the deciding points came later on Jeremy Hill’s 50-yard touchdown run, and Shaw led a drive that narrowed the deficit to two points with 1:41 left in the game, Reid’s interception was a game-changer.
“I was off balance,” said Shaw, who completed 19 of 34 passes for two touchdowns and two interceptions. “I should have flipped my hips and set my feet, but I kind of rushed the throw, and it got away from me.”
As big as that play was, the Gamecocks realized that this wasn’t the only reason for the loss.
LSU ran 18 more offensive plays, outgained the visitors 406-211, outrushed USC 258-34 and had a 13:54 edge in time of possession.
“Tonight we realized why LSU was preseason No. 1,” said Spurrier, whose third-ranked Gamecocks fell to 6-1 overall, 4-1 in SEC play. “They’re a big, strong team that can run the ball and stop the run, and that was the biggest difference in the game, probably.
“They deserved to beat us. No question about it. Give those guys credit.”
It looked nothing like last week, when South Carolina blasted Georgia 35-7 and LSU fell 14-6 at Florida, but Spurrier dismissed any thought that his team suffered a letdown. The Tigers held All-America running back Marcus Lattimore to 35 yards on 13 carries and contained Shaw’s scrambling and intentional runs, limiting him to (minus-1) yard rushing.
“We were ready to play,” he said. “We have no excuses. We have no excuses whatsoever. They outplayed us, outhit us. We had some chances.”
“They came out very physical,” Shaw said. “I don’t know how strong we came out, but like I said, we left chances on the board.”
For all the pregame focus on South Carolina’s defensive ends, Jadaveon Clowney and Devin Taylor, it was lesser-heralded defenders who loomed large early.
On third-and-goal at the South Carolina 2, middle linebacker Reginald Bowens stopped Kenny Hilliard inches short of the goal line, and, after a false start penalty aborted a fourth-down try for the score, the Tigers settled for Alleman’s 23-yard field goal.
When LSU again drove into Gamecocks territory, cornerback Jimmy Legree jumped in front of a slant route intended for wide receiver Jarvis Landry at the South Carolina 29, and he took it 70 yards down the left sideline to the LSU 1 before running back Jeremy Hill brought him down.
Two plays later, Shaw connected with receiver Ace Sanders for the touchdown and a 7-3 lead on the first play of the second quarter.
Clowney, however, made his presence known against an LSU offense that emphasized power running and quick passes to neutralize his speed and penetration.
Two plays before Legree’s interception, he raced downfield to tackle Hill at the end of a 21-yard gain on a swing pass. When the Tigers reached the South Carolina 15 on their next possession, he and cornerback Victor Hampton stopped fullback J.C. Copeland for no gain, and he batted down quarterback Zach Mettenberger’s third-down pass, leading to an Alleman 33-yard field goal attempt that was hooked left.
But it wasn’t enough against a relentless LSU rushing attack that, for the most part, pounded the Gamecocks between the tackles.
“We had some players in position but didn’t make plays,” said South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward. “We talked about going into the game if we stopped the run we had a chance to win, and if we didn’t, we knew it was going to be a long night.
“We missed quite a few tackles today. … We going into the game they get toe-to-toe with the team and a lot of double-team blocks at the point of attack, and they play physical football. That’s what we got. We thought we were very capable of stopping it, so we know we’ve got to go back to the drawing board because we’ll get to see the run again next week.”
South Carolina visits Florida next Saturday, with the winner having the clearest path to the SEC East title — and possibly more.
“Alabama did it last year,” said tight end Justice Cunningham, referring to the Crimson Tide winning the BCS National Championship despite losing to LSU in the regular season. “We can do it this year.”
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