By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – This isn’t how it was supposed to be.
Nothing that happened Saturday night in Neyland Stadium resembled any preseason predictions that were set for South Carolina; the cast of characters was different and the style is something completely different than the patented play calling that the program’s head coach is known for.
But when you get right down to it, what the Gamecocks were able to accomplish on Saturday was the only thing that really matters in the end. South Carolina posted a 14-3 win against Tennessee in Knoxville to keep the lead in the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division with the ability to control its own destiny.
“We won the game somehow,” South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier said Saturday in his post-game press conference. “We didn’t look very pretty on offense for most of the game, but we did run the ball some. We’re not a very good passing team right now, but we managed to run the ball a bit to win the game. I know it wasn’t real pretty for television or maybe for a lot of people, but we’re glad to get to 7-1.”
The successes that the Gamecocks were able to boast offensively on Saturday came largely due to a duo that wouldn’t have been expected to leading the team just a few months ago. Sophomore quarterback Connor Shaw started his third consecutive game and freshman running back Brandon Wilds saw his first major collegiate action following an injury to star running back Marcus Lattimore in the team’s Oct. 15 game against Mississippi State.
Spurrier, widely known as one of the brightest and most innovative offensive minds in college football, has made his name over the years based on a unique and fast-paced offensive scheme based largely on a dynamic and dominating passing attack. On Saturday, it was the ground game that got it done for South Carolina. 231 of the team’s 318 total offensive yards came via the rush.
“I’m not much of a passing coach anymore,” Spurrier quipped.
But, the result was the same. The Gamecocks came away with the victory.
“I don’t come off the field smiling real big like I used to when our teams used to score a bunch of points, but we understand that’s what we’ve got to do and our defense is playing very well,” Spurrier said. “We don’t want to do anything to give away a score. We think we can throw it around better and we’re still going to keep trying. The object is to win the game.”
In total, Shaw and Wilds combined for 201 of the team’s 231 rushing yards (87.0 percent) in the contest, as Wilds racked up 137 net rushing yards on 28 carries.
“Freshman Brandon Wilds stepped up and had a great game,” Shaw said. “He had well over 100 yards rushing. The offensive line helped him out a lot, but he had a great two weeks of practice and stepped up and played really well.”
Wilds had big shoes to fill in Saturday’s game as the Gamecocks had relied heavily on Lattimore, the 2010 SEC Freshman of the Year, to carry their offense in the 2011 campaign. But, as Shaw said in Saturday night’s postgame press conference, Wilds proved his effectiveness against the Vols.
“Marcus is a great running back and Brandon proved tonight that he is a great running back,” Shaw said.”
Spurrier said Saturday night that he was extremely pleased with Wilds performance and, though there are elements that can be tweaked, his freshman running back has shown he can provide an explosive threat.
“He’s a good back,” Spurrier said. “If we can block a little bit for him, he’ll make some yards and he did that. He can make yards, he runs forward and can really break some tackles. We’ve got to work on coming out of the backfield. He’s a true freshman, this is the first time that he’s really ever played.”
Shaw completed 10-of-18 passes for 87 yards, but rushed the ball 16 times for 64 net yards with a score for an average of 4.0 yards per carry. In addition to his individual effectiveness on the field, Shaw has proven himself as a leader in managing the team’s offense.
“You just have to manage the game and be smart, especially in road games – we had 96,000 people here,” Shaw said. “Hats off to Tennessee on the passing attack. They really stopped that and forced us to run it. Brandon did a great job.”
Spurrier knows that the Gamecocks must continue to play with the same intensity and problem-solving abilities in order to continue their winning ways and forge ahead in search of their second consecutive SEC Eastern Division Championship. That continues on Saturday when they travel to Fayetteville, Ark., to take on Arkansas.
“We’ve got to beat Arkansas next week,” Spurrier said. “I don’t know if Georgia can lose another one but, if we’re going to win the East, we’ve got to keep winning.”
Can South Carolina continue on to Atlanta given all of the injuries on its team and having to rely on the running game?
“I would like to believe so,” Shaw said. “We’ll take it practice-by-practice and game-by-game, but I think we’re capable of doing that.”