WHEN ALL SEEMS to be failing, South Carolina has learned over the past three seasons that it is best to go back to the basics. That means feeding the beast, ergo, giving the ball to Marcus Lattimore.
It is never anything fancy, mind you. USC essentially scrapped its read-option attack in the second half of its win against Kentucky at Commonwealth Stadium. It more or less put its passing game under wraps. It all but abandoned its shotgun formation, instead putting quarterback Connor Shaw under center and operating primarily out of the I formation.
When Lattimore lines up in the back end of that I formation, it does not really matter that the opponent knows what is coming. Lattimore is going off right tackle, off left tackle, and up the middle. You might slow him, but you are not likely to stop him.
“Sometimes it just opens up,” Lattimore said. “Our O-line, once they get in their groove, three or four runs in a row, it’s hard for us to be stopped.”
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When USC decides to grind it out, Lattimore wears the opponent down with his methodical between-the-tackles runs. He finished with 23 carries for 120 yards, his highest totals since a 37-carry, 246-yard performance a season ago against Navy.
Lattimore seems to do his dirty work best in the second half of games. That was true again on Saturday. His five carries for 12 yards were representative of the disastrous first half that left USC trailing 17-7.
“We just came out with a different focus in the second half,” Lattimore said. “They had all the momentum. They had things go their way, balls bounce their way a lot tonight, and we just had to run the ball a little bit more.”
USC’s fortunes seemed to turn as soon as Lattimore became the focus of the Gamecocks’ attack. On USC’s first offensive play of the second half, Lattimore went 13 yards. Then he carried for 2 yards. Eventually, USC scored on that possession and each of the next two.
The latter of those drives was classic Lattimore. USC went 81 yards on 14 plays in a drive that took a little more than seven minutes and gave the Gamecocks a 28-17 lead. Remarkably, Lattimore carried the ball 10 times on the drive for 61 yards.
Once USC moved to first-and-goal at the 9, it was what has become known as Lattimore Time. He first went off tackle and carried a couple of Kentucky defenders for 6 yards. Then he met a defender head on at the 2-yard line and bulled him into the end zone.
A few minutes later, Lattimore ran 4 yards for a touchdown. The two scores gave Lattimore a school-record 38 for his career, including a school-record 35 rushing.
Unfortunately, Lattimore’s numbers, while gaudy, are not the kind that will help his Heisman Trophy candidacy. (At this point, it appears to be a race for second-place anyway with West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith cementing himself as the clear favorite).
Lattimore entered Saturday averaging 85 yards rushing per game. That total ranked 10th in the SEC, which will not get him into much talk about the Heisman. It takes splash and flair to win the Heisman Trophy, and that is not Lattimore.
The TV highlight shows feature running backs who dance around defenders for huge gains. Lattimore slides through arm tackles for mundane 5-yard pickup after 5-yard pickup after 5-yard pickup. His longest gain Saturday was 23 yards, meaning he managed 97 yards on the other 22 carries.
“I kind of like downhill runs so I can get those tough yards,” Lattimore said.
While the spotlight will continue to shine on those running backs and quarterbacks across the country who have panache and pizzazz, Lattimore remains bread and butter.
As far as USC is concerned, it will take the steak over the sizzle all season long as it means Lattimore leading the Gamecocks to victory as he did Saturday against Kentucky.