Steve Spurrier promised this week to be more positive about No. 13 South Carolina. It was hard, though, to hide his displeasure about Jadeveon Clowney's absence.
Clowney came to the coaches before the game and said that bruised ribs that kept him from practice Thursday were too sore for him to play. So the 6-foot-6, 274-pound All-American watched the Gamecocks' 35-28 win over Kentucky from the sidelines, chatting with teammates as South Carolina lost a large lead for the third straight game.
If Clowney "wants to play, we will welcome him to come play for the team if he wants," Spurrier said. "But he if doesn't want to play, he doesn't have to play. Simple as that."
Connor Shaw threw for a touchdown and rushed for another and Mike Davis had 106 yards rushing as South Carolina (4-1, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) held off the Wildcats (1-4, 0-2).
Few had questioned Clowney's desire to play since he arrived on campus before the 2011 season. He was the SEC freshman of the year that fall, then had a 13 sacks and a school-record 23 ½ tackles for loss to lead become the league's defensive player of the year. The capper was Clowney's highlight-reel hit in the Outback Bowl and popped the helmet off of Michigan's Vincent Smith.
But Clowney has not looked like that player through five games this year with 12 tackles and two sacks. He's dealt with dehydration and a flu bug against North Carolina, another virus against UCF last week and bone spurs in his right foot throughout the fall. Clowney's also watched opponents play away from him and go for large gains as some of South Carolina's new defensive starters couldn't make plays.
"He may not be able to play next week. I don't know," Spurrier said. "But we're not going to worry about it, I can assure you of that."
Clowney was considered the top NFL draft prospect for next spring, some analysts said he would've gone No. 1 last April if he were eligible instead of sophomore. It's impossible to know if Clowney's so-so season would have an impact on his status as an elite player.
Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said he thought Clowney would play during the team's walk-through earlier Saturday and was surprised when he learned he wouldn't be out there. "He said he was hurting, but I thought he was going to play," Ward said. "Love to have JD out there, but we've got to put 11 guys on the field."
The 11 out there gave Spurrier, Ward and a sold-out Williams-Brice Stadium several anxious moments as Kentucky rallied from 21-0 down to pull to 27-21 on Jalen Whitlow's 14-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Timmons with 11:50 remaining.
They were still within a touchdown after Whitlow bulled his way to a 1-yard scoring run with four minutes left. But the Gamecocks ran out the clock behind SEC leading rusher Davis and beat Kentucky for the 13th time in the last 14 meetings.
It was South Carolina's 14th straight home victory, the third-longest active streak behind Michigan and Georgia. Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier improved his career mark to 20-1 against the Wildcats. No other active coach has posted 20 victories against one team.
And this one didn't come easy, although the Gamecocks might be used to the script by now.
Two games ago, South Carolina led Vanderbilt 28-0 before the Commodores closed to 35-25. Last week, the Gamecocks were up 28-10 at UCF when the Knights posted two touchdowns in the fourth quarter and South Carolina needed to field an onside kick with under two minutes left to close out a 28-25 win.
This time, the Gamecocks were up 21-0 on Shaw's 62-yard touchdown pass to Damiere Byrd and two scoring runs by Mike Davis. The Wildcats' comeback took flight after halftime when Demarco Robinson scored on 4-yard pass.
Bruce Ellington fumbled the next kickoff and the Wildcats cashed in on the turnover with Whitlow's pass to Timmons.
The Gamecocks gave themselves some breathing room the next sequence when Shaw scored from 2 yards out and completed a pass to Nick Jones for a two-point play to go up 35-21.
Kentucky, though, wasn't done as Whitlow completed passes of 22 yards to Jordan Aumiller for 22 yards and Javess Blue for 33 yards to the Gamecocks 2. Whitlow tightened things up one last time with his touchdown run with 4:02 to go.
Shamir Jeffery, the younger brother of ex-Gamecocks star Alshon Jeffery, fielded the ensuing onside kick and Davis and Shaw were able to run out the clock.
"It was good the see the offense find their rhythm, move the ball and get into the end zone," Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. "I was proud of that. I felt like if we could have gotten another stop defensively, we would have given ourselves a chance to score at the end."
Shaw completed 17 of 20 passes for 262 yards. He also rushed for 50 yards.
"It's never frustrating when you win," Shaw said. "I'm proud of the guys on offense and how we battled tonight."