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Connor Shaw Is the Key to the South Carolina-Clemson Game

John Sommers II

In an excellent Fan Post discussion of Clemson's recent defensive woes, Navin S said the following:

In many ways, Connor Shaw is the key to this game. He is both the best running and passing threat the Gamecocks have on offense. If he rediscovers is running magic after a couple of cortisone shots expect the offense to do well. But more importantly, the Connor Shaw against Tennessee and Arkansas who found open receivers against weak secondaries has to show up.

I really don't think this can be overemphasized. There are a few certainties in this game. Clemson's wideouts have an advantage over our secondary. Our offensive and defensive fronts have advantages over those of Clemson, but after the injury to Marcus Lattimore, Clemson has an advantage at running back. The Gamecocks don't have an elite group of receivers, but against a porous Clemson secondary, there should be opportunities for us to make plays down field. Lastly, though, QB is a big question mark. I don't think you can argue that Connor Shaw is better than Tajh Boyd at this stage in their careers--Boyd has progressed into a very solid QB, although we can certainly throw him off his game if we get pressure.

Shaw, though, has played at a comparable level at points in his career, even if he's also had his down games. The Missouri, Kentucky (especially second half), Tennessee, and Arkansas games prove that Shaw can move the ball through the air, especially against questionable pass defenses like Clemson's. (To make matters worse for them, the Tigers are without Bashaud Breeland Saturday.) The guy is capable of playing at a high level.

There are two concerns, though. First of all, Shaw's ability to run the ball has played a big role in warding off the pass rush and facilitating the run game. However, that aspect of Shaw's game has been limited in recent weeks. Some critics have said that's because opposing defenses have figured out Shaw's style. Certainly, getting your ends and outside defenders to stay in their lanes makes a difference against a QB like Shaw. But we knew that last year, and if anything, Shaw was more one dimensional then. It's not the defensive approach that has sidelined Shaw. It's recent injuries.

The other thing, and the perhaps more worrisome issue, about Shaw is his poor play on the road over the course of his career. I'm not going to run the stats for you. Without them, you know very well that Shaw has struggled on the road. The mitigating argument is that he has mainly played these games against good defenses than what CU will throw at us. Clearly, road games against LSU and Florida aren't conducive to good passing numbers. Has Shaw's problem been those defenses or playing on the road itself? That's not clear, but given that there is abundant evidence that Shaw's main weakness as a QB is hesitancy and poor pocket presence, it's not hard to see that playing on the road seems to have an affect on him. Shaw seems quicker to stop making his reads and to leave the pocket in these games.

Against Clemson, there will be ample opportunity for Shaw to make plays. If he regains his early-season form and is able to both hurt Clemson down field and to open things up for the running game out of the zone read, Carolina could easily score 40 or more points in this game and win going away. If he struggles, though, it will probably be a long evening for the Gamecocks.