COLUMBIA — The quarterback questions linger for No. 7 South Carolina and Missouri, even though both teams expect their starting passers to be on the field Saturday.
Coach Steve Spurrier said Connor Shaw was OK to start for the Gamecocks (3-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference), despite playing less than two quarters in two weeks because of a shoulder injury. Missouri quarterback James Franklin sat last week with inflammation in his shoulder, yet says he’s 90 percent ready to go in the first-ever SEC road game for the Tigers (2-1, 0-1).
“On a scale of one to 10, I’m a nine” Franklin said this week about his health.
How long Shaw and Franklin last is anyone’s guess.
Shaw was hurt against Vanderbilt in the Gamecocks season opener and was out in the win against East Carolina. He returned against Alabama-Birmingham last week, but was out again after getting hit hard right before halftime. Shaw winced in pain and revealed after South Carolina’s 49-6 victory he had a hairline fracture in his right throwing shoulder.
Anyone who watched figured Shaw would surely miss more than just the second half, but Spurrier ended the speculation — and quashed any debate over who should start after Dylan Thompson’s strong play in relief of Shaw — early in the week by picking his junior to open against Missouri.
“Connor’s fine,” Spurrier said. “I think he could have played the second half the other night. He just had some quick pain right there.”
Shaw was not cleared by Spurrier to speak to the media this week.
The Gamecock offense hasn’t slowed down the past two weeks, largely because of Thompson, who’s thrown for 507 yards and five touchdowns. While Shaw, 10-1 as a starter the past two seasons, wins games in part because of his running ability, Thompson’s more the gun-slinger who rears back and lets it go.
Four of Thompson’s five TD throws were for 29 yards or longer, including last week’s 94-yard scoring throw to Damiere Byrd.
It’s no secret Spurrier loves throwing downfield. Still, the coach knows playing Shaw means grounding the offense and that’s what’s best for the Gamecocks to win in the SEC. Thompson has posted big numbers against nonconference opponents, East Carolina and UAB.
“There’s no question that running the ball is what Connor does, which makes him a good quarterback,” Spurrier said. “So if he plays, he’ll run it some. If he can’t run, I don’t think he’s quite as effective. We believe he’ll be able to run some.”
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel thinks Franklin will be effective, too, in his first game in two weeks.
Franklin chose not to take a pain-killer and play with his injury in Missouri’s 24-20 victory over Arizona State, a decision Pinkel and Missouri offensive coordinator Dave Yost understood and accepted.
“If I was out there, I probably couldn’t have made some of the throws I usually could,” Franklin said. “I could have easily thrown an interception or an incompletion or something like that. And also, I could have possibly made it worse” for this week’s game.
Instead, backup Corbin Berkstresser threw for 198 yards and rushed for a touchdown in the Tigers’ win. Pinkel was happy with Berkstresser’s first start, but is also ready to have Franklin, in his second season as a starter, back under center.
“Franklin will play if he can play, so we’ll see how the week goes practice-wise until game time and we’ll see where we’re at from there,” Pinkel said. “Hopefully, he’ll be ready to play.”
Something Missouri’s quarterback won’t have to worry about is Gamecocks defensive playmaker D.J. Swearinger. The senior safety was suspended by the SEC for a helmet-to-helmet hit on UAB’s Patrick Hearn the league called targeting a defenseless player.
Swearinger will be replaced by freshman T.J. Gurley, who Spurrier said has shown ability in his first season.
Swearinger and Gurley spent the summer working out and breaking down film. Swearinger told Gurley, “Be ready because you might play,” Gurley recalled his older teammate telling him after the suspension was announced.
For Missouri, it’s the second chance to make an SEC mark — and the second straight time it’s trying to do it against a top-10 opponent.
The Tigers fell to then seventh-ranked Georgia, 41-20, two weeks ago. There’d been talk Missouri’s latest SEC game would be tagged the “Battle of Columbia,” since both campuses are located in that city. It didn’t happen, despite the approval of Spurrier.
“I know Columbia, Mo., is a great place to live,” said Missouri’s Pinkel, “and I’m told Columbia, S.C., is a great place also. Coach Spurrier must have more time on his hands than I do.”