COLUMBIA — Missouri was supposed to have seen the last of Connor Shaw.
In September 2012, South Carolina's quarterback was essentially playing against air. He completed his final 20 passes of the day and led the Gamecocks to a 31-10 shellacking of the Tigers in Columbia, S.C.
But the senior severely sprained his knee last week against Tennessee, and backup Dylan Thompson made the start Saturday night at Memorial Stadium.
Everything seemed to fit into the blueprint of Missouri's dream season. The sellout Homecoming crowd roared as the Tigers built a 17-0 lead. Shaw watched from the sideline.
But with 6:46 left in the third quarter, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier had seen enough. He tossed his injury report out the window and sent Shaw onto the field.
"Just stay calm," he told his team. "We are not going to win a game in one series."
The Missouri crowd was oblivious. Their No. 5-ranked team hadn't won by less than 15 points all season. The defense was brimming with confidence.
“We thought we had it,” defensive lineman Kony Ealy said.
By the time the clock ticked into the final minute of the fourth quarter, Shaw had engineered a crazy comeback. The 17-point lead was gone, and the Tigers had the ball deep in their own territory.
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel had a choice: Go for the win, or run out the clock to force overtime.
“I didn’t want anything bad to happen,” Pinkel said.
That’s funny in hindsight. Plenty bad had already happened with Shaw at the controls of the Gamecocks offense. The screen game ate up large chunks of yardage and tempered a fierce Missouri pass rush, and the senior quarterback had been deadly accurate downfield.
As the clock ticked down to 0:00, Shaw had amassed 167 yards and two touchdown passes against one of the best defenses in the country in little over one quarter.
So the Tigers let the time run out and decided to enter one final showdown against the man who had surprisingly emerged to shred their vaunted defense. If there is such a thing as momentum, the Gamecocks had two fists full. Shaw had rallied his team back from a three-score fourth-quarter deficit.
“It maybe made a difference to them,” Missouri defensive lineman Shane Ray said of the quarterback switch. “But it didn’t make a difference to us.”
The first overtime swung immediately in Missouri’s favor. Marcus Murphy ran in his second touchdown of the day, and the defense quickly forced a fourth-and-goal from the 15-yard-line.
Undaunted, Shaw took the snap, surveyed his options and then launched a perfect pass to Bruce Ellington in the right corner.
Pinkel called Shaw “courageous.” Ealy said the switch was an “emotional lift” for South Carolina.
But after Tigers kicker Andrew Baggett pulled a game-tying 24-yard field goal attempt off the left upright, there was only one way to describe Shaw’s performance: masterful.
Much like 2012, Shaw finished the game with a stat line better than any quarterback Missouri has faced. He completed 20 of 29 passes for 201 yards and three touchdowns. He didn’t turn the ball over once after his team had already coughed it up four times.
"I wasn't even supposed to be playing in this game," said Shaw, who played with a bulky brace on his injured left knee. "They said I was supposed to be out two to three weeks. I am thankful to be able to play in this game."
The Missouri Tigers’ season had swung the right way for seven games and three quarters. All year, the team had been lauded for shaking last year’s monkey of a five-win season off its back.
But all it took was a familiar foe to derail the new and improved Tigers.