SAPAKOFF COLUMN: A 'nervous' Marcus Lattimore comes to the rescue for No. 9 South Carolina against plucky Vanderbilt
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Sadly, restaurants here have a higher percentage of good singers, pickers and lyricists among the hired help than any other town in the nation. But sometimes a glory candidate from South Carolina blows into town and performs as well as everyone back home expected.
Yeah, and Darius Rucker was almost as impressive rocking the country charts as Marcus Lattimore was saving the season for South Carolina, 17-13.
The No. 9 Gamecocks — with quarterback Connor Shaw ailing and no capable understudy emerging — would have lost Thursday night to traditionally poor Vanderbilt if not for more vintage Lattimore.
Those SEC championship game hopes remain intact because Lattimore bounced back from his 2011 knee injury in a big way.
The junior from Duncan might not win the Heisman Trophy, but no college football player is more valuable to a given team.
Vanderbilt outgained South Carolina, 276 yards to 272.
Generally outplayed the Gamecocks, too, except for an inability to stop Lattimore: 110 yards rushing, three catches for 21 yards, two touchdowns.
“Words can't even describe it,” Lattimore said of how good it feels to carry the football again. “I just remember watching all the games from the sideline.”
Which partly explains why a player with 30 college touchdowns in the bank was nervous.
“Really, really, really nervous,” Lattimore said. “Knowing I was about to get hit for the first time.”
He sat out the last six games of the 2011 season and opened the promising 2012 season with …
A fumble. On South Carolina's first snap on offense.
“It wasn't a good play,” Lattimore said, taking all the blame. “I hated that. I hated that it happened.”
Note that Lattimore did not lose a fumble during the regular season of his freshman year.
“After a few runs, I felt like myself again,” he said.
After linebacker Shaq Wilson halted Vanderbilt's third possession with an interception, he hurried over to Lattimore.
“You know what time it is,” Wilson said.
Two plays later, Lattimore scored on a 29-yard run. As usual, he picked the correct hole in South Carolina's zone-read running attack. He dashed untouched over the wet field turf until Vanderbilt safety Eddie Foster stood in the way at the 2.
Lattimore faked outside and turned inside for the end zone as Foster fell on his belly.
Like a country singer able to double on the fiddle and drive a tour bus full of equipment an T-shirts, Lattimore also makes the “little” contributions. It won't show up in the statistics, but when Shaw ran 10 yards after faking a handoff to set up a second-quarter field goal, two Vanderbilt guys almost tackled Lattimore.
His best work is as a closer. Lattimore took over the fourth quarter, which started with Vandy holding a 13-10 lead and Shaw suffering from a deep shoulder bruise on the back of his throwing arm.
“That's been kind of a repeating thing of the last two years,” Lattimore said. “If we're letting them hang around, we just have to run the ball.”
The 2011 Gamecocks managed to complete an 11-win season with decisive wins over Clemson and Nebraska, without Lattimore.
But South Carolina has lost only seven games since the start of 2010 season. With a healthy Lattimore, the Gamecocks probably would have three more wins.
He suffered a sprained ankle in the third quarter of Kentucky's 31-28 upset victory in Lexington in 2010.
Lattimore went out early in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl that season; South Carolina lost, 26-17.
Maybe the 44-28 loss at Arkansas last season is pushing it.
Thursday night offered fresh evidence that South Carolina is a completely different program without Marcus Lattimore.
Reach Gene Sapakoff at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @sapakoff.