Lattimore, Carolina Expect Big Things
By BJ Bennett
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Even missing six full games a year ago, Marcus Lattimore still compiled 818 yards and ten scores. Now completely healthy, his presence turns expectations up a notch.
Even with the continued progression of quarterback talent Connor Shaw and the return of a dominant defensive front four, South Carolina's fate rests heavily on the rebuilt left knee ligament of star running Marcus Lattimore. If he isn't quite the same or suffers reoccurring damage, the consequences for the Gamecocks would be quite drastic. If he returns to form, however, the shake-up of the SEC's hierarchy could be just the same.
South Carolina has a great team, but make no mistake about it -- they are at their best when Lattimore is at his. The numbers overwhelmingly support such a stance. When he receives 18 or more carries during his career in Columbia, the Gamecocks are 12-0. When Lattimore doesn't reach that mark, the six games he didn't play in last season and one he missed as a freshman excluded, South Carolina is just 3-6.
Through really just a year and a half of Lattimore being on the roster, the Gamecock's best moments have been intertwined with his. Lattimore burst onto the national scene in week two of his true freshman season, manhandling Georgia to the tune of 182 yards and two touchdowns on 37 carries. It was one of the most dominant showings by a first-year player in modern SEC history.
"Well, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what the story of the game was. Number 21 Marcus Lattimore was certainly the most dominating player in the game. Coach Spurrier did a nice job planning for that young man to carry the ball. They just kept feeding him. Twenty-one carries in the first half for over 100 yards, that kid was outstanding. We knew he was an outstanding back, and I can't say I was shocked that he would have a performance like this, just because I know he is a heck of a back. When it came to tackling him, we just didn't do a good job of knocking him back and wrapping him up. But again he is a heck of a back. I think history will prove that he is one of the best," explained UGA head coach Mark Richt.
Less than a month later, South Carolina welcomed top-ranked defending national champion Alabama to Williams-Brice Stadium. The Crimson Tide had the second-best rush defense in college football the year prior and allowed the fewest rushing scores of any team in the country with five. Lattimore responded to the challenge, running 23 times for 93 yards and two touchdowns. With ESPN Gameday on hand, the Gamecocks stunned Alabama 35-21 in the school's first-ever triumph over the nation's number one team.
"He is strong. I can give him that," acknowledged Crimson Tide All-American defensive lineman Marcell Dareus. "What I like about him is he always steps forward. He was falling, but kept driving his feet and was falling forward. He just gave his best to get every yard he could get."
Now a household name, Lattimore torched Tennessee in a high-profile encore performance three weeks later. He carried the ball 29 times for 184 yards and a score in a two-touchdown toppling of Rocky Top. In one of the toughest venues in the country to play, Lattimore set a new single game yardage total career high.
"They hand the ball off to 21 and he looks like Secretariat running through us," admitted UT head coach Derek Dooley.
For South Carolina, a berth in their first-ever SEC Championship Game came down to a road game at head coach Steve Spurrier's alma mater Florida. It was a de facto semifinal game for the Georgia Dome; the winner would go on to play for the conference crown. On the road, in yet another hostile environment, with it all on the line, Spurrier would again turn to his true freshman tailback. Lattimore carried the football a school-record 40 times for a personal-best 212 yards, scoring three rushing touchdowns in the process.
Prior to the critical SEC East showdown, Spurrier told his young star to expect to be the focal point.
"I knew he was serious," Lattimore stated. "When he says something, he means it."
Reflecting on the division title that week, Spurrier, one of the game's all-time greatest coaches, was quick to offer praise.
"Marcus is a special young man as we all know, and not only his ability to play the game and run the ball, catch passes and block. A lot of people don't realize he threw the block that sprung Stephen on the goal line. Marcus can do it all. He's a very humble young man. Wonderful mom and dad. I see his mom after every game as we're leaving the ballpark on the road. Certainly she was one of the happiest of all the happy Gamecocks last week. Marcus doesn't say a lot, but his teammates obviously love him. He's just a big reason we are where we are, no question. Without him running the ball I don't know what our record would be right now," he concluded.
Through three games into his sophomore season, Lattimore had compiled 534 yards rushing and seven rushing scores. He was averaging over six yards per carry. After totaling 182 yards versus Georgia as a freshman, Lattimore followed his 176 yards as a sophomore. The very next game, he set a new career high with 246 rushing yards against Navy.
"Kid has great vision, the guy is very powerful. You try to stay back and have some lane integrity, and if you commit too early he bounces outside. He is a very patient runner, but so explosive. He gets hit at the line of scrimmage and drags us for more yards. He is everything he was built to be. We knew he was a great back coming into this game, but he was better than advertised," added Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo.
Even missing six full games a year ago, Lattimore still compiled 818 rushing yards and ten rushing scores. Now completely healthy, his presence turns the expectations up a notch for an already incredibly-talented football team. Lattimore, a year stronger and wiser, is again ready to hit opposing defenses like a bowling ball meeting a gathering of helpless pins. South Carolina, eyes sight on the national top five, appears ready to do the same.