Led by true freshman running back Marcus Lattimore, the University of South Carolina football team came through in the clutch against a surprisingly-resilient Tennessee squad on Saturday – keeping the Gamecocks (6-2, 4-2 SEC) in the driver’s seat in the SEC East and making them bowl-eligible for the seventh consecutive season. USC’s 38-24 victory over the Volunteers also avenged a ghastly Halloween loss last year on Rocky Top – earning the Gamecocks a rare late-season victory over their nemesis from Knoxville.
Like any SEC win this one didn’t come easy, though – and it probably wouldn’t have happened without Lattimore, who has given the Gamecock offense a dimension it has been lacking since head coach Steve Spurrier came to Columbia prior to the 2005 season.
The phenom from Duncan, S.C. rushed for a career-high 184 yards on 29 carries against the Volunteers (2-6, 0-5 SEC) – topping his previous high of 182 yards recorded earlier this year against Georgia. Lattimore also caught a pair of passes for 26 yards.
Like the rest of his teammates, though, it was a day of fits and starts for the heralded freshman. In fact, at times it was Spurrier’s Gamecocks who looked like the “Germans on D-Day,” to borrow a controversial observation made by Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley about his shell-shocked Volunteer team earlier in the week.
After gashing the Tennessee defense for 90 yards on sixteen carries in the first half, Lattimore found the sledding to be much tougher in the second half. In fact, he was held to just 17 yards on his first seven carries of the second stanza as the Gamecock offense struggled to find its rhythm.
Similarly, Tennessee held mid-season All-American Alshon Jeffery in check for most of the game – limiting the sophomore wideout (who has been averaging seven catches and 122 yards per game) to just one catch for five yards through three quarters.
But Lattimore and Jeffery eventually found their ignition switches – and their “big-playability” couldn’t have come at a better time for Spurrier, whose Gamecocks looked dazed and confused during the third quarter in particular. In fact, they appeared to be on the verge of giving away their third SEC game of the year in the fourth quarter as Tennessee came storming back from a two touchdown deficit.
After the Volunteers rallied to tie the game at 24-24 early in the fourth quarter, South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia hit Jeffery on a short crossing route – only his second catch of the game. What looked like a routine first down pick up quickly turned into a much bigger play, though. After receiving a key block from fellow wide receiver Tori Gurley, Jeffery outran the Tennessee secondary and lumbered down the left sideline for a 70-yard touchdown that put Carolina ahead 31-24.
“He doesn’t look like he’s fast, but no one seems to catch him from behind,” Spurrier said of Jeffery’s touchdown. “That was a huge play.”
“The worst that should have come from that play was a first down for 12 yards, but that’s what great players do,” Dooley said. “That’s what impact, game-changing players do.”
On the Gamecocks’ very next drive, it was Lattimore’s turn to “turn it on.” After being bottled up on his first two handoffs, the freshman ripped off gains of 40 and 19 yards on his next two runs to set USC up at the one-yard line.
Three plays later, Garcia put the game out of reach with a one-yard quarterback dive (one of two short touchdown plunges by the junior signal-caller). When Spurrier pulled Lattimore during the last minute of the game, he called on the crowd to give his young back a well-deserved ovation.
USC will gladly take the win – but the truth is this was a schizophrenic, mistake-filled game for both teams. And the Gamecocks are going to have to play much better if they expect to compete against Arkansas next Saturday.
“We didn’t play extremely well,” Spurrier said. “We had some really ridiculous, dumb plays today.”
But he added that “our big play guys came through.”
In addition to Jeffery and Lattimore’s heroics, USC came up with several huge plays on defense – a 24-yard “pick six” interception return for a touchdown by defensive end Devin Taylor and a pair of forced fumbles that the Gamecock offense was able to turn into touchdowns. USC’s defensive line also registered multiple sacks on Tennessee’s two quarterbacks, Matt Simms and Tyler Bray, while holding the Volunteers to just 92 yards rushing.
On the other hand South Carolina’s pass defense – which entered the game ranked dead last in the SEC – was torched for 312 yards and three touchdowns. Tennessee wide receiver Denarius Moore did most of the damage, hauling in six catches for a career-high 228 yards.
“If we’re going to beat (Arkansas), we’ve got to figure out how to play some pass defense,” Spurrier said, nothing that the Razorbacks lead the SEC in passing offense.
Simms and Bray had particular success throwing the ball against All-SEC defensive back Chris Culliver, who was burned on a number of passes. Culliver later left the game with a shoulder injury.
On offense, Carolina had its share of problems as well.
After ramming the ball down the Volunteers’ throats on the opening drive of the game, Garcia threw an interception in the end zone to Tennessee linebacker Nick Reveiz that killed the drive. In the second half, Carolina struggled to move the football as conservative play-calling and a tired offensive line enabled Tennessee’s front four to bottle up the Gamecocks’ rushing attack and put steady pressure on the quarterback.
In fact, the Gamecocks gained just four yards on three consecutive drives in the third quarter – including one disastrous “drive” that lost eight yards and culminated with a missed field goal after a Tennessee special teams fumble had set the Gamecocks up at the Volunteer 17-yard line.
Carolina’s special teams didn’t fare much better, though, as the Gamecocks were burned for a 25-yard run by punter Chad Cunningham on a fourth-and-ten play from the Volunteers’ own 30-yard line. Cunningham’s dash gave Tennessee its first successful fake punt in seven years – and another fifteen yards was tacked onto the end of the play after USC wide receiver Ace Sanders hit Cunningham out of bounds.
Spurrier didn’t seem to mind the mistakes, though.
“That’s called football,” he said. “Some games you make them, and some games you don’t. If you think we’ll play like we did against Alabama every week, that’s not going to happen.”
With the win, South Carolina continues to control its own destiny in the SEC East. That means if the Gamecocks beat Arkansas next week at home and Florida the following week in Gainesville, they will make their first-ever appearance in the SEC championship game on December 4 in Atlanta. South Carolina has also now won a pair of games this year after the Ides of October – a point in the season which has typically been deadly for Spurrier’s Gamecock teams.
Over the previous three seasons, USC was 20-5 in games played prior to October 15 – but just 4-14 in games played after October 15. This year, the Gamecocks went 4-1 prior to October 15 and are currently 2-1 after October 15.
Meanwhile, it hasn’t been this bad on Rocky Top in more than thirty years, as Tennessee is 0-5 in the SEC for the first time since 1977.
Pics: Travis Bell, Sideline Carolina