TAMPA, Fla. – Steve Spurrier’s plan to use two quarterbacks in the Outback Bowl worked so well that Dylan Thompson and Connor Shaw both earned game balls.
That’s a first for the Head Ball Coach, who has a well-known penchant for benching struggling QBs. Except in this case, the Gamecocks’ winningest coach used his talented pair of passers by design.
Shaw began Tuesday’s 33-28 victory over Michigan with a 56-yard touchdown pass to Damiere Byrd. Thompson closed it out by throwing a 32-yard TD strike to Bruce Ellington in the final minute to help South Carolina match the school record for victories in a season.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever given two quarterbacks a game ball, but today I said: ‘Hey, we’ve got to give them to both you guys,”’ Spurrier said.
“Both those young men are just so super team-oriented. There’s no jealousy, nothing. ... Those guys are just really, really good teammates. Wonderful team players,” the coach added. “We tried to tell Connor: ‘It’s your game.’ And it was his game, but Dylan was going to play. He understood that. It worked beautifully as it turned out.”
Thompson replaced Shaw during the winning drive, covering the final 43 yards after Shaw began the march from his own 30 and kept it alive with a 6-yard completion to Ace Sanders on a fourth-and-3 play. Devin Gardner’s third TD pass of the game had given Michigan a 28-27 lead.
“I wasn’t nervous. I knew I had great guys around me, and I trusted them and just was confident,” Thompson said.
Shaw threw for 227 yards and two touchdowns after missing the Gamecocks’ regular-season finale with a left foot sprain. Thompson led the Gamecocks (11-2) to a victory at archrival Clemson, and threw for 117 yards and two TDs in the bowl.
Gardner threw for 214 yards in his fifth start for Michigan (8-5) since Denard Robinson injured his right elbow late in the season. Robinson took some snaps at quarterback and even attempted his first passes in a game since Oct. 27, but lined up mostly at running back and rushed for 100 yards on 23 carries.
Sanders caught TD passes of 4 yards from Thompson and 31 yards from Shaw, who completed 18 of 26 passes before aggravating his foot injury and limping off during the final drive. The speedy receiver had nine catches for 92 yards and also scored on a 63-yard punt return – one of four plays over 50 yards yielded by Michigan.
Gardner was 18 of 36, including TD passes of 5 yards to Drew Dileo and 10 and 17 yards to Jeremy Gallon, who gave Michigan its late lead and finished with career bests of nine receptions and 145 yards. Robinson set the NCAA record for career yards rushing by a quarterback, hiking his four-year total to 4,495 – 15 more than West Virginia’s Pat White ran for from 2005-08.
“I’d rather win the game,” said Robinson, who attempted two passes in the third quarter, both incompletions, and also ran twice on plays in which he took the snap as the quarterback – a role he’s embraced since being injured during a loss to Nebraska.
“It was just what I thought it was going to be,” Robinson said. “I tried to make the most of it.”
South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney was quiet for much of the day, but shifted momentum in the fourth quarter with a big hit on Vincent Smith that sent the running back’s helmet rolling several yards backward and caused a fumble that the SEC defensive player of the year recovered to set up Shaw’s TD pass to Sanders for a 27-22 lead.
The TD capped a three-play sequence that began with Michigan running its second fake punt of the game, gaining 4 yards to the Wolverines 41 for what was ruled a first down, despite not appearing be one when the officials called for a measurement. South Carolina challenged the spot, but the ruling on the field was upheld.
Clowney then slammed into Smith just as the Michigan runner was taking the handoff from Gardner, jarring the ball loose.
“I asked one of those other refs there. I said, `You know the ball did not touch the first-down marker.’ He said, `I know it didn’t.’ I said, `Well, why did he give it to them?’ and he said, `I don’t know,”’ Spurrier said.
“Clowney knocked the ball out the next play, so I’m glad they gave it to them. … We gained about 10 or 15 yards.”
Robinson was injured during the first half of Michigan’s two-touchdown loss to Nebraska on Oct. 27. He missed the rest of that game, as well the next two against Minnesota and Northwestern before returning the final two weeks of the regular season to contribute in ways that didn’t require him to throw the ball.
The 6-foot, 197-pound native of Deerfield Beach, Fla., entered the game during Michigan’s second possession and ran for 15 yards on his first play. Gardner threw 26 yards to Gallon, moving the Wolverines into position for Brendan Gibbons to kick a 39-yard field goal.
Down 14-3 after Sanders’ punt return, Michigan marched 75 yards in 11 plays to trim South Carolina’s lead to four, with Robinson carrying four times for 20 yards along the way. Gardner finished the drive by flipping his touchdown pass to Dileo early in the second quarter.
Michigan began the day ranked second in the nation in pass defense, allowing 155 yards per game. South Carolina matched that in the opening half alone, with most of the yardage coming on Shaw’s long TD throw to Byrd and Thompson’s 70-yard completion to Jones that led to Sanders’ second TD for a 21-10 lead.
The Wolverines turned South Carolina’s only turnover into Gibbons’ 40-yard field goal in the second quarter, and Matt Wile’s Outback Bowl-record 52-yard field goal trimmed Michigan’s deficit to 21-16.
South Carolina ended on a five-game winning streak that followed consecutive losses to LSU and Florida. The Gamecocks also won 11 games last season.
“We hit eight of 10 goals we started the season with,” Spurrier said. “We did that last year, too. That’s good, but it still can be better.”