ATHENS, Ga. -- Perhaps because of Georgia’s offensive ineptitude in its 35-7 loss last season to South Carolina, Gamecocks quarterback Connor Shaw’s impressive performance seemed to fly under the radar.
Look over Shaw’s run-pass line from that game -- 6-for-10 passing for 162 yards and two touchdowns, plus 78 rushing yards and another score -- and you won’t confuse him for dual-threat Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel.
But make no mistake, Shaw’s ability to make things happen with his arm and legs played a major role in South Carolina jumping to a 21-0 lead by the end of the first quarter. Containing the shifty quarterback will be a major order of business for the Bulldogs in Saturday’s rematch.
“Most of the time when you have a quarterback like that, you might see an opening just to go inside on a tackle or something like that and he just slips outside and that’s when the big plays happen,” Georgia defensive end Josh Dawson said. “So staying to your keys and being fundamental, that’s going to be the biggest thing of containing a quarterback like that. Just try to apply as much pressure as you can. I feel like if we can do that, we can have a chance.”
A season ago, though, Georgia had difficulty with the fundamental aspects of defending him.
On the second play of the game, Shaw launched a jump ball that receiver Damiere Byrd snatched away from Bulldogs safety Bacarri Rambo for a 42-yard gain. Three plays later, Shaw hit a wide-open Bruce Ellington with a 20-yard touchdown pass, and the Gamecocks were up 7-0.
Shortly after Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray was intercepted on the ensuing drive, South Carolina was on the move again, going 69 yards in 11 plays and scoring on a 14-yard pass from Shaw to Rory Anderson.
In just those two drives, Shaw went 5-for-6 for 100 yards and two scores, and he ran twice for 17 more yards. With a defense as good as South Carolina’s, Shaw’s early efficiency had a devastating impact on Georgia’s chances.
“Connor Shaw is a very difficult quarterback to manage in how he runs the football, and he threw the ball extremely well,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said.
Although Georgia’s defense did not exactly hem in Clemson's Tajh Boyd last weekend, who totaled five touchdowns in a 38-35 victory, the Bulldogs believe there was some value in facing one of the nation’s top dual-threat quarterbacks before facing Shaw in their conference opener Saturday.
“You tend to figure out what running quarterbacks’ tendencies [are],” Georgia outside linebacker Leonard Floyd said. “Like if they don’t see something open, they’ll tuck it and run it just about every time. So it’s really like practice leading up to playing South Carolina’s quarterback.”
Their teams’ offensive philosophies -- South Carolina’s grinding offense is built around physicality, including the running style of its hard-nosed quarterback, while Clemson’s wide-open scheme attempts to get its large group of talented skill players into open space, with big plays a regular possibility -- are extremely different, and so are their quarterbacks.
That makes a comparison between Georgia’s strategy against Boyd versus its strategy against Shaw somewhat invalid, defensive lineman Mike Thornton said.
“I don’t think it’s worth comparing those two because they’re two totally different teams with I feel like two different philosophies as far as running the ball and having an outside passing attack,” Thornton said. “So I wouldn’t compare the two, but we definitely have to get after Connor Shaw.”
That much is certain. Georgia learned that lesson the hard way a season ago.
Their rocky 2013 debut reminded the Bulldogs of the importance of playing their assignments properly on defense, and they will be tested in that area again Saturday.
“[We have keep staying] to our keys and just knowing what can happen when you get out of your gaps and whatnot,” Dawson said. “Playing Boyd was an eye-opener and it was something we needed early in the season. Coming into the South Carolina game, you have Connor Shaw, who does the same thing, so it’s something that’s going to help us this week.”