COLUMBIA — South Carolina never won the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division until 2010.
That was Marcus Lattimore’s freshman year.
The Gamecocks never won 11 games until 2011. That was Lattimore’s sophomore season.
South Carolina never has beaten Georgia three consecutive times. Guess who will figure prominently in tonight’s showdown between the top-10 teams at Williams-Brice Stadium?
That’s right, Lattimore.
The junior running back turned in workhorse performances against the Bulldogs the past two years – both South Carolina wins – and the Gamecocks will likely turn to him again.
“He’s played very well against them and if we’re to win he probably needs to have another big day,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said.
Lattimore’s debut against Georgia in 2010 was nothing short of spectacular and invoked comparisons to another freshman running back, Herschel Walker, who dominated the game between the two schools in 1980. While Lattimore doesn’t possess the same speed as Walker, he did show he was as tough as the UGA legend by carrying 37 times for 182 yards and two touchdowns in a 17-6 South Carolina home win.
A year later, Lattimore racked up 176 yards and a touchdown in a wild, 45-42 win at Sanford Stadium. While he was overshadowed by the heroics of defensive lineman Melvin Ingram – who scored touchdowns on a fake punt and a fumble recovery – it was Lattimore who scored from three yards out late in the game to put the Gamecocks on top for good.
But the soft-spoken Lattimore knows those games are history.
“These past two games really don’t mean anything,” Lattimore said after practice Wednesday. “I know they’re going to be ready.”
Lattimore has not put up big numbers this season, but that’s probably a result of the coaching staff taking it slow after he injured his left knee in last season’s win against Mississippi State. His best performance came in last week’s road win at Kentucky, when he had 120 yards on 23 carries and scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns to put the game away.
The Gamecocks trailed 17-7 at halftime, but Lattimore said he wasn’t alarmed by the deficit.
“I wasn’t frustrated at all. We weren’t executing in the first half,” he said. “We just came out with a different focus in the second half.”
And he knows the Gamecocks can’t afford to lose focus against Georgia.
“We know who Georgia is. We know how tough they are,” he said. “They’ve got a great defense and offense. We’ve got to get way better this week. We have to start off with momentum.”
Georgia will counter Lattimore with a solid rushing attack of its own led by freshmen Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. The two accounted for five touchdowns and more than 300 yards in last week’s 51-44 win over Tennessee.
“As we all know, freshman running backs can come in and play well,” Spurrier said. “Just like Marcus did two years ago. That’s a position you don’t have to be here two years to learn the offense. Both those freshman running backs are talented kids. They can run with it. We’ve got to make sure they don’t have room to run.”
While Spurrier has mostly abandoned his pass-happy philosophy and his offense features a more balanced attack, that doesn’t mean opponents have been able to crowd the line and stop the run.
“All the statistics prove that the team that runs the best usually wins, but not always,” Spurrier said. “That’s our best formula, to run it more than we throw it. We expect them to get a bunch of guys up there and stop the run first, which everyone does.”
The problem with stopping Lattimore is that he seems to find another gear late in the game when defenses are worn out.
“I think his conditioning is tremendous, and it always was good,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “I was watching last year’s game (against South Carolina), and his biggest runs came in the fourth quarter. He had more than 100 yards rushing in the fourth quarter. They were quite frankly able to run the ball when everybody knew all they were going to do was run the ball. That was a little bit of a problem.”
Lattimore’s performance in 2010 caught Georgia by surprise. The true freshman didn’t expect to carry the ball 37 times, but he didn’t shy away from it, either.
“We just started in the fourth quarter running the ball real good,” he said. “We kept pounding them and gave our defense time to rest.
“I really didn’t expect that many carries, but it worked out that way. My o-line was doing a great job.”
With just 440 yards in five games this season, some have questioned whether Lattimore is as good as he was prior to the knee injury. But his response is something that Georgia and its fans might not want to hear.
“My body feels great right now and I’m only going to continue to get better,” Lattimore said.