When the first dramatic notes of Also sprach Zarathustra blared over the loudspeakers at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, S.C., on Saturday, 74,200 fans went wild. That theme has introduced some pretty big productions—the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey; Elvis Presley's act—and now it heralds the coming of the South Carolina football team. Chills raced up and down the spines of the spectators. The frenzy of the crowd increased. At the appropriate crescendo the team appeared, and the fans lost all sense of decorum and—excuse us, Stanley Kubrick—simply went bananas.
Never mind that Vice-President George Bush dropped by to screw up traffic and leave early. The spectators generally ignored him and kept their minds on important business, such as the Gamecocks' magical pass-catching combination of sophomore quarterback Todd Ellis and senior wingback Sterling Sharpe as they pinned a fearsome 48-0 drubbing on North Carolina State.
No wonder South Carolina fans are elated. The Gamecocks, now 6-2, are good, possibly headed for very good. Other than a high moment here and there—George Rogers's Heisman Trophy in 1980 for one, the 10-2 season in '84 for another—South Carolina football has tended toward mediocrity, generally operating in the shadow of Clemson, never making a major bowl and losing all six of the little ones it has played in. But things are different now, and the reasons are Ellis and Sharpe, who constitute one of the most exciting passing combos in the college game.
Ellis set NCAA freshman records last year for total offense (2,975 yards), passing yardage (3,020) and touchdown passes (20). Nearly every football school in the country wanted him when he was a high school prospect in Greensboro, N.C. Sharpe is the Gamecocks' best receiver ever, with 156 catches for 2,346 yards. Precious few colleges had even heard of him when he was growing up on his grandparents' farm near Glennville, Ga. Those that did wanted him to be a defensive back. All except one—South Carolina.
On Saturday Sharpe took the opening kickoff and stutter-stepped, head-faked and sidestepped tacklers, cut inside, then outside, and ripped 58 yards up the left sideline to the State 27-yard line. It was the kind of play Sharpe makes all the time, and though the Gamecocks failed to score on that possession, the blazing run set the tone for the day. As Ellis had said earlier in the week, "Sterling is like a 10-speed bike. He's got a different gear for every situation."
Ellis has a few gears, too, but they all run more slowly than Sharpe's. Sharpe is a splendid athlete who could play a bunch of positions. Ellis would have trouble at any place but quarterback. Sharpe leaves observers staring at stopwatches in disbelief; he has run the 40-yard dash in a blazing 4.4 seconds. Ellis can be timed without a second hand. Sharpe is mouthy and loosey-goosey. "You don't get to play football long enough to waste time being serious," he says. Ellis has his fun but says earnestly, "I'm trying to be a serious quarterback."
So of course the two are fast friends. They are dedicated, tough and bright. Stanford desperately wanted Ellis, but he preferred to stay close to home. "My family was more important than my own selfish wants and needs," he says. Sharpe already has a bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary studies and is getting another in retailing.
The Gamecocks operate out of a gambling run-and-shoot offense designed by coach Joe Morrison to make life easier for an ordinary offensive line and confuse the defense by sending out four receivers on every play. Amid the web of patterns Ellis can always find Sharpe and whip the ball to him. And Sharpe can catch it, as he has 49 times this year for 764 yards. But Sharpe downplays that skill. "Everybody can catch a ball," he says. "The difference is how bad you want to run with it."
A perfect example came with 9:19 left in the third quarter Saturday with South Carolina ahead 27-0 and the ball on the Wolf-pack 23. The play was a 90 Go Out pass, in which Sharpe fines up on the right, runs 15 yards downfield and turns toward the right sideline. It calls for Ellis to sprint left, but he couldn't find a receiver. He turned back to his right, somehow eluded an onrushing lineman, crossed the field—backing up 15 yards as he went—stopped and threw the ball on a line to Sharpe at the five. Sharpe then crashed his way to the two, for a total gain of 21 yards. Somehow Sharpe and Ellis each knew what the other was doing while the play progressed; each was busy getting it done. Moments later running back Harold Green plunged in for one of his three touchdowns.
From the start, what rattled the Wolfpack was all the worrying about where Sharpe was and what he might do. Said Ellis afterward, "You could see N.C. State getting messed up just because Sterling was in the game." State often dropped eight defenders back to protect against the pass. Sharpe still got eight catches for 118 yards, but Ellis was held to 183 passing yards, 112.5 below his average. That left a lot of empty territory for Green (69 yards) and another running back, Keith Bing (93 yards), to conquer. The aroused Gamecock defense, meanwhile, came up with 11 tackles for losses, held the Wolfpack to a pitiful 36 yards and made three interceptions, including one that free safety Brad Edwards returned 43 yards for a TD.
Make no mistake, Sharpe is a dominating player just as Notre Dame receiver Tim Brown is. Which is why he'll almost certainly be a first-round NFL draft pick. What fascinates the pros is that he is able to block—and just as important, will block, even troublesome linebackers. Then, on the next play, he'll blow past a defensive back on the fly. Says Sharpe, "I want to play at the level where everyone expects me to play. Very high. Very, very high."
"Sterling can make this game look awful easy," says Ellis. So, too, can Ellis. He throws too many interceptions—22 last year, 15 so far this year—but he has a cocky attitude that allows him to zip the ball into crowded places and not get down on himself when he hits a glitch. And he has developed the knack of delivering the ball on time, which helps explain why this year he's fourth in the nation in total offense with 295.5 yards per game. Says South Carolina's offensive coordinator Frank Sadler, "Goshdog, he's got radar on that ball."
After the game Morrison mused about his two stars: "Ellis just brought that presence with him out of high school, and when Sharpe runs in a straight line, folks miss him." Gamecock fans won't miss either of them, from now right through bowl season.
This season Ellis has completed 172 of 300 passes for 2,364 yards and eight TDs.
Whether he's running with a pass or returning a kick, Sharpe's cuts are quick and deft.