November 24, 2011

Cloninger: Shaw's been good, time to be better



"Join the ranks."
------------- ONE MAN ARMY

It's the passion of this rivalry - and of South Carolina's non-dominance in it - that the little guys are not only remembered, but held as legends.

It doesn't matter what the rest of a player's career is at USC. If he (or she) plays an integral part in beating Clemson, they'll forever be cherished. This is true in all sports (anybody remember Marcos Rios?) but especially in football, where players, or specifically quarterbacks, are mostly judged on how they perform in that one game.

Steve Taneyhill had one winning season in four years, yet beat the Tigers twice in Memorial Stadium (its proper name, by the way, not the one that not-so-coincidentally shares a name with an SEC stadium). Mike Hold went 1-1 against Clemson as a starter and was only a part-time QB during his 1984 win, but because he won, and because he famously presented the ball to an ex-Chicago Bear after the whistle, he's on the right hand of the Almighty.

Even Tommy Suggs, the gold standard, had three mediocre years quarterbacking the Gamecocks, with two four-win seasons and one four-loss (albeit, ACC championship) season. But he never once lost to the orange-clad folks from the Northwest, meaning he undisputedly holds the title and the championship belt, until someone takes it from him.

The Gamecocks thought they would have the man to challenge Suggs for his title, but Stephen Garcia lost his opportunity after finally using up his last chance. Although Garcia (and Weslye Saunders before him) left on acrimonious terms, they are still adored by some of the fan base because although they made mistakes, they performed against Clemson.

With yet another installment of the rivalry on tap this weekend, it's time for another legend to be born. It is Connor Shaw's time.

I'm quite sure that Shaw is not thinking of that aspect of it. A serious young man, Shaw is probably only thinking of the best way to win the game, not the kudos that come with it if he does.

But if that can in any way help him prepare for this moment, his first start against the archrival, it needs to be embraced. All he has to do is ask any of his fellow athletes, in any sport, what it means to beat Clemson.

Do it once, and no matter what happens going forward, that once will carry over. Michael Roth is an outstanding pitcher, but he will always be remembered for tossing that three-hit shutout over Clemson (at the College World Series, no less). Ieasia Walker will go down in history as an outstanding point guard, but she poured in 30 points to notch her first win over the Tigers. I'm sure I couldn't do justice to the swimmers, soccer players, high hurdlers or golfers who have beaten Clemson over the years and who feel a distinct pride in it.

Shaw has never played for the ego, never played for the headline. A competent and sometimes excellent player, Shaw is the perfect example of staying within himself and using his teammates to win the game, not glorify his personal statistics or boast about them.

A player who grew up outside of the rivalry's influence, Shaw gets his first chance to endear himself to the Gamecock faithful. As unfair as it might seem to him, if it even registers, this game means more than any SEC game.

When he takes that first snap on Saturday, he's not just trying to run Z-right-8 or Double-Curl-Tight-Tuck. He's carrying the banner for everybody in that stadium or watching on TV or listening on radio or live-streaming on the computer that ever had to take a Thanksgiving's worth of trash talk from a Clemson fan.

The Tigers' all-time roster is filled with so many one-hit wonders that have beaten USC that they're just another notch in the rivalry (Chris Morocco?) The Gamecocks are waiting for that one, the guy who could be as good as Suggs was, when Suggs was as good as … who?

The journey toward statue status can begin on Saturday. Or it can begin a step toward the other side of the rivalry, the one led by Dickie DeMasi and Vic Penn.

Shaw has had to be the "other" guy since Garcia was dismissed in mid-season, an unfair but necessary label. If he can mimic what Garcia did - beat Clemson his first time out - he can shed that tag forever.

Curtain up at 7:45 p.m. on Saturday. The time for being an understudy is long past.

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