COLUMBIA – South Carolina beat Tennessee 38-35 on Saturday afternoon, to rebound from a two-game losing streak against top 10 teams. But the 17th-ranked Gamecocks suffered an even bigger loss than their defeats at LSU and Florida the past two weeks.
With 4:45 left in the first half, tailback Marcus Lattimore was carted off the field after suffering what appeared to be a serious right knee injury. Cornerback Eric Gordon hit Lattimore from his left at the end of a two-yard run, and Lattimore's leg bent awkwardly. He was carted off the field, as both teams walked onto the field to encircle him. Lattimore was taken to the hospital for further evaluation.
“I hope it's not as severe as it looked on the field,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier told ESPN's sideline reporter before heading to the locker room at halftime, when the Gamecocks led 28-14.
Tennessee burst out of the locker room at halftime, scoring touchdowns on three of its first four drives – possessions of 80, 69 and 67 yards. The latter came on a 22-yard touchdown pass from Tyler Bray to wide receiver Zach Rogers, which was Rogers' third touchdown catch of the day and cut South Carolina's lead to 38-35 with 8:35 left in the game.
South Carolina managed a touchdown and a field goal on its first four second half drives. The Gamecocks got four touchdowns on six first half possessions.
On South Carolina's fifth drive, immediately after Rogers' third touchdown, Connor Shaw had wide receiver Ace Sanders open, and led him with a pass on third down and 4 from Tennessee's 30-yard line. But it sailed a bit too long, and grazed Sanders' hands in the end zone. Shaw threw an interception on the next play, and Tennessee took over at its 19 with 4:46 left.
Tennessee drove to USC's 19 and had first down and 10, needing only a field goal to tie the game. Bray dropped back to pass, but defensive end Jadeveon Clowney beat left tackle Antonio Richardson and knocked the ball away from Bray. South Carolina recovered with 1:08 left. Clowney pounded his chest in celebration. The Volunteers got the ball back with 36 seconds left in the game, but the drive ended with an interception on the second play.
South Carolina (7-2, 5-2 Southeastern Conference) is off next week, then hosts Arkansas on Nov. 10 in its SEC finale, as the Gamecocks try to go undefeated at home for the first time since 1987. They probably will do it if they beat Arkansas, because their only other home game is against Wofford on Nov. 17. Tennessee (3-5, 0-5) hosts Troy next week.
Tennessee is now guaranteed of having a losing SEC record for the third straight year, which hasn't happened since 1962-64, when the Volunteers had three coaches in three years and went 2-6, 3-5 and 1-5-1.
Before getting hurt, Lattimore had 11 carries for 65 yards, and a 28-yard touchdown that put USC up 21-7 with 8:22 left in the first half. USC led 21-14 when he left the game. Kenny Miles and Mike Davis replaced him. Last season, Lattimore suffered season-ending torn ligaments in his left knee, in the seventh game, at Mississippi State.
Largely because of poor run blocking, Lattimore was a non-factor in the previous two games. He ran 13 times for 35 yards at LSU and three times for 13 yards at Florida.
But USC's offense came alive in the first half Saturday, against a Tennessee defense that doesn't compare to LSU's or Florida's. USC gained 296 yards in the first half and got touchdown passes for 28 and 33 yards to go with Lattimore's 28-yard run, on which he got superb blocking from his line and was never touched.
Tennessee would not go quietly into halftime and got a 37-yard touchdown pass from Bray to Rogers with 5:21 left in the half, to cut USC's lead to 21-14. USC answered on the drive after Lattimore's injury, marching 67 yards for a one-yard touchdown run by Shaw, with 14 seconds left in the half.
On Lattimore's injury play, he cut left and ran for two yards on second down and 10 from USC's 25. As linebacker Herman Lathers tackled Lattimore from behind, Gordon came from Lattimore's left, apparently unseen by Lattimore, and nailed Lattimore's right knee. The knee bent awkwardly and Lattimore's leg flopped below his knee as he rolled forward.
Trainers immediately rushed onto the field and examined Lattimore's knee. His kneecap appeared to be out of place, pushed to the right. Lattimore leaned back, pulled off his helmet and put his hands over his face. Trainers put their hands on his chest to calm him. He looked scared.
With the injury appearing serious, the atmosphere at Williams-Brice Stadium turned funereal. Wide receivers Sanders and Nick Jones, and Miles, knelt around Lattimore as trainers examined him. Several Tennessee players joined them and tapped Lattimore in support. Eventually, almost every player on both teams had encircled Lattimore as he was loaded onto a cart and taken away, his right leg straightened, a towel over his head.
Lattimore, a junior and one of the most successful players in USC history, suffered a season-ending ligament tear in his left knee while blocking in last season's seventh game, at Mississippi State. He returned this season and said he was full strength, and that he felt confident in his knee.
Lattimore now has 38 career rushing touchdowns and 40 total touchdowns – both school records. If he is unable to return this season, Saturday's game might have been his last at USC, as he is eligible to declare for next year's NFL draft.
Lattimore's injury immediately brought messages of support on Twitter.
“So sad to see the injury to Marcus Lattimore,” wrote LSU coach Les Miles. “Strong kid! We wish him well in recovery.”
Auburn running back Tre Mason was preparing to play Texas A&M on Saturday night when Lattimore got hurt.
“I know that I wear #21 but I'll wear it in honor of @LattTwoOne tonight!” Mason wrote.
NOTES: South Carolina defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles missed his second straight game with shoulder sprain, and J.T. Surratt started in his place again. … Saturday marked the fifth time in five SEC games this season for Tennessee that it has played an opponent ranked in the Associated Press top 25. The Volunteers previously lost to No. 18 Florida, No. 5 Georgia, No. 19 Mississippi State and No. 1 Alabama. … Before going 81 yards for a touchdown on its first possession, USC had just three scoring drives, all for touchdowns, of 80-plus yards this season.