COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier says he's getting more questions from NFL scouts about Connor Shaw. With the senior quarterback's strong start to the season, expect those inquiries to rise.
Shaw has always been a steady leader who leaned on other Gamecock playmakers in recent years, including receivers Alshon Jeffery and Ace Sanders, and tailback Marcus Lattimore. It's a formula that has helped No. 13 South Carolina go 31-9 the past three seasons.
Now, Shaw's the main attraction for the Gamecocks' no-name offense, which built a 28-0 en route to Saturday night's 35-25 victory over Vanderbilt.
He finished 21 of 29 for 284 yards and three touchdowns against the Commodores. He also rushed for a team best 84 yards to keep Vanderbilt on its heels. Shaw showed off his arm with two first-half TD passes, fitting in the ball into tight coverage for a 12-yard scoring throw to Nick Jones and a 26-yard touchdown pass to Bruce Ellington to build the Gamecocks big lead.
"I told the receivers this week that I was going to let it fly this week," Shaw said.
The QB's play has kept the Gamecocks offense flying despite the loss of record-setting playmakers. He's 19-4 as a starter since taking over the starting job from oft-suspended quarterback Stephen Garcia in 2011.
The Gamecocks (2-1, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) had a season-best 579 yards of offense, the most in two season since South Carolina's then-sophomore Shaw threw for four touchdowns and amassed 639 yards in a 54-3 victory over Kentucky.
"This might be the best we've ever looked on offense since I've been here," Spurrier said.
Shaw's the biggest reason why.
The younger brother of former Georgia Tech and Georgia Southern passer Jaybo, Shaw came to the Gamecocks as a stellar run, so-so passing quarterback who figured to backup the highly regarded Garcia on the depth chart.
As Garcia struggled to stay eligible — he was suspended five times by South Carolina before being dismissed from the team— Shaw saw more playing time. Shaw's breakthrough game came against the Wildcats in 2011 and he's taken off from there.
The ride hasn't always been easy. Spurrier gets frustrated when he says Shaw takes off running too quickly instead of trusting the play and letting the ball go. Behind Shaw is Dylan Thompson, the more traditional pocket passer who's been a fan favorite for his ability to throw and connect on the long ball.
Shaw's dual-threat nature makes him doubly hard to stop, particularly for the Commodores. Shaw rallied the Gamecocks to a fourth-quarter touchdown in a 17-13 victory in Nashville to start the 2012 season, despite a shoulder injury from earlier in the game.
This time, Shaw simply overwhelmed Vanderbilt with his accuracy and legs.
"Their quarterback played as good of first half as he could. That throw to Ellington over the shoulder was in perfect position," Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said.
Shaw had foot surgery days after South Carolina's Outback Bowl victory over Michigan last New Year's Day and missed spring workouts. Once cleared by doctors to train, Shaw threw himself into things with a gusto that impressed his teammates.
"He's been coming to practices and stepping up and being a leader and coming out every day to work" said Ellington, who had eight catches for 111 yards.
Shaw said he's focused on making the most of his last college season. That took a hit on Sept. 7 when the Gamecocks lost 41-30 at Georgia, an early showdown for the SEC Eastern Division title.
He made sure that defeat didn't linger, leading the Gamecocks to touchdowns on his first three possessions under center — backup Thompson engineered a touchdown drive in that stretch, too — on the way to a big lead.
When Vanderbilt rallied back within 35-25 and South Carolina backed up on its 1 with almost nine minutes left in the final quarter, Shaw led a 17-play, 64-yard drive that soaked up all but 55 seconds to seal the game.
Shaw picked up two crucial first downs in the sequence, one on third-and-1 from SC's 10 and the other moments later on fourth-and-1 from the Gamecocks 45.
"I thought he had a heck of a game. He's really a good passer," Spurrier said. "Yeah, we gave him a game ball. We thought he was deserving."