Forget the preseason hype … this game was all about survival.

The ninth-ranked University of South Carolina football team needed a fourth quarter touchdown from Heisman Trophy candidate Marcus Lattimore – and a late missed call from the officiating crew – to stave off an upset bid from Vanderbilt in the season opener for both teams in Nashville, Tennessee.  Head coach Steve Spurrier’s squad also survived a major scare when starting quarterback Connor Shaw went down in the second quarter with a shoulder injury that kept him sidelined for several drives.

Despite the drama the Gamecocks (1-0, 1-0 SEC) managed to kick off the most highly anticipated football season in school history with a 17-13 win against a Commodore team that can no longer be taken lightly.  They may have also learned a valuable lesson in the process.

“We thought we were hot stuff,” Spurrier said after the game, referring to his team’s preseason accolades.  “Then we almost got that stuff beat out of us.”

Marcus Lattimore looks for running room on Thursday against Vandy.

Lattimore opened his Heisman Trophy campaign on a sour note – fumbling on his very first carry of the season and giving the Commodores (0-1, 0-1 SEC) a golden opportunity to take the lead early in the first quarter. However Vanderbilt couldn’t take advantage of that turnover – or an interception from Shaw on the next drive – and Lattimore made them pay with a 29-yard touchdown scamper the very next time he touched the football.

“It could have been a completely different game,” Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin said. “We had opportunities to put together a significant win and didn’t get it done.”

Still, the bright spots were few and far between for the Gamecocks.  Vanderbilt actually amassed more yardage than USC and Franklin’s team could have been in position to pull off the upset were it not for a key missed call from the officials late in the game.

On a fourth-and-seven play from their own 38-yard line with just under two minutes on the clock, Commodores’ quarterback Jordan Rodgers – the younger brother of Super Bowl XLV MVP Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers – floated a long pass to wide receiver Jordan Matthews that fell incomplete at the South Carolina 32-yard line.

Replays clearly showed Gamecock defensive back D.J. Swearinger interfering with Matthews on the play, but no flag was thrown and the Commodores were forced to turn the football over on downs.

Asked about the play after the game Franklin declined to comment.

“Trying to get me fined?” he asked reporters, referring to SEC rules that prohibit coaches from poor-mouthing officials after games.

Obviously had the refs gotten the call right it wouldn’t have guaranteed a Vandy win, but it would have certainly made things much more interesting.  And let’s be honest:  This was a game that most Gamecock fans thought that their team would win handily.

Instead the most heralded team of the Steve Spurrier era – and the first Gamecock squad ever to begin a season with a Top Ten ranking – had serious flaws exposed on both sides of the football.  If those flaws – including poor play in the defensive secondary and an anemic passing attack – aren’t corrected soon, Gamecock fans could be in store for a very disappointing season.

DJ Swearinger defends against Vanderbilt’s Jonathan Krause

South Carolina looked positively lost without Shaw in the lineup – as backup quarterbacks Dylan Thompson and Seth Strickland each failed to complete a pass.  Shaw’s injury was described as a “contusion,” and he was able to return in the third quarter – although not quite at full speed.

Eventually he found his wheels – and his diving 12-yard run early in the fourth quarter set up Lattimore’s go-ahead touchdown.

Spurrier described Shaw’s injured shoulder as “sore” after the game but said his starter “should be okay” for the Gamecocks’ Sept. 8 home opener against East Carolina.

Shaw completed 7 of 11 passes for 67 yards with no touchdowns and one interception against Vandy.  He did pick up 92 rushing yards on 14 carries, though, and showed all sorts of guts coming back into the game after his shoulder injury.  The win moved Shaw to 9-1 as USC’s starting quarterback – a role he inherited midway through the 2011 season.

Still, it was Lattimore who stole the show in his first game back after 2011’s season-ending knee injury.

The junior tailback ran 23 times for 110 yards – his ninth career 100-yard game – and scored a pair of touchdowns.  He also caught three passes for 21 yards.  The 6-foot-1, 218-pound All-American from Duncan, S.C. now has 2,125 rushing yards, 615 receiving yards and 31 total touchdowns through his first 21 collegiate games.

Lattimore’s totals against Vandy could have been even higher had he been given the ball on the opening two series of the third quarter.

Defensively, South Carolina clearly did not live up to expectations.  A year after holding Vanderbilt to three points, five first downs and 77 total yards, the Gamecocks gave up 13 points, 11 first downs and 276 yards this go-round.  The defense did record five sacks, though, and linebacker Shaq Wilson came up with a big play when he picked off a Rodgers’ pass near the goal line and raced 37 yards in the other direction.

Vanderbilt finished the 2011 season with a 6-7 record, but the Commodores lost five games (to Georgia, Arkansas, Florida, Tennessee and Cincinnati) by a touchdown or less.


Pic: Travis Bell, Sideline Carolina