NASHVILLE - He kept getting back up.
South Carolina junior quarterback Connor Shaw took hit after hit from Vanderbilt's punishing, rack-'em-up defense, but kept dragging his battered body back to the huddle for one more play, one more snap. With a throwing arm that he couldn't feel for part of the second quarter and with a face that was already glowing red on one side after the game, Shaw put himself back in for the most crucial play of the game.
Leading the Commodores by a scant four points, the No. 9 Gamecocks faced third-and-5 from Vanderbilt's 33-yard-line. Get it, game over. Don't, and here comes Vandy again, a good 90 seconds or so to try and mount a game-winning touchdown drive.
Aching though he was, Shaw took his place and called his own number. The snap rifled into his hands, the blockers sealed off a wall to the right and Shaw started running. The black jerseys closed in as he dove for the marker - he came up and saw that he had it with room to spare.
The 7-yard jaunt mercifully ended a hellacious 17-13 USC win, a game where Vanderbilt seemed intent to take out over 100 years of doormat frustration with each eyeball-jiggling tackle. The Gamecocks ended with just 272 yards of offense, Shaw collecting 159, but found a way to win.
Why? Because of the beat-up field general who schlepped to the bus afterward wanting nothing more than a cold bath and a soft bed.
"It was a gutsy performance by Connor Shaw," coach Steve Spurrier reverently said. "He'll be sore for a while, but I think he should be OK. He had some nice runs when he was hurting a little bit and that's what it took. That last call, if we don't make that first down, who knows what happens?"
Everyone feared the worst, when Shaw was rung up by what he called a helmet to his shoulder while diving for the sideline in the second quarter. Grimacing and trying not to move his tender arm, Shaw went to the locker room and didn't return until the third quarter.
Shaw said the hit popped a nerve and he couldn't feel his arm. He slowly got the feeling back and softly tossed a football around in the locker room, trying to keep loose, and when he told the trainers and coaches that he was good to go, they didn't question it.
His teammates knew he was hurting, but they also knew he would never, ever voluntarily pull himself out of a game. Not that man, who had been so businesslike in his approach to the game that some often wondered if he remembered it was still a game.
"It's just guts," tailback Marcus Lattimore said. "Our leader. He's just determined and he just loves this team and he's going to do whatever he can to win the game."
Shaw returned from the injury and in the fourth quarter, fired a bullet to Cunningham, who lost his helmet but held onto the completion. The ensuing personal foul gave the Gamecocks 15 free yards and USC punched in the go-ahead touchdown soon after. Shaw and Lattimore handled the majority of the rest of the game, Shaw's first-down run ending it.
Spurrier called the injury just a bone bruise. Shaw said that he "absolutely" would be ready for East Carolina next week, no matter how much he was hurting.
"Adrenaline kicks in, you just see the goal line," Shaw said. "I try my best to keep my mind focused, on what we had to do. I was able just to play."
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