COLUMBIA — He spoke to them from afar, offering words of encouragement in a taped message that played on the video board during the first quarter. South Carolina’s players certainly felt the absence of running back Marcus Lattimore during Saturday’s home game against Arkansas.
Lattimore did not attend the game and will not be an on-field part of the Gamecocks’ final push this season. A season that began with much hope and a No. 9 ranking, then ebbed in October with back-to-back road losses and Lattimore’s injury, but could still result in the type of historic success that leaves USC coach Steve Spurrier slyly grinning with satisfaction.
With 10 games down and three to go for the Gamecocks, plenty of what they wanted from this year is still there for the taking. Saturday’s 38-20 win by 12th-ranked USC (8-2, 6-2 Southeastern Conference) over Arkansas (4-6, 2-4) assured as much, even if the Gamecocks’ offensive identity without Lattimore remains somewhat uncertain.
“We still have a chance to have a great year,” said USC quarterback Connor Shaw.
The Gamecocks are 6-2 in the SEC for the second time, and second straight season. They all but assured their first undefeated home record since 1987 — they host Wofford next week before traveling to Clemson to close the regular season. Presuming a win over Wofford, Spurrier could set USC’s all-time coaching wins record at Clemson.
Last season, USC went 5-1 after Lattimore’s season-ending knee injury to finish 11-2. This season, the Gamecocks will need to close 4-0 to equal that program-best record. And after Saturday’s convincing win over the reeling Razorbacks, they are essentially two games away from reaching the milestone again — Clemson and the bowl game.
“We had some bumps in the road,” Spurrier said. “We’re not an all-powerful team, but we’ve got a pretty good record and have got a chance to end up with a good record.”
They emerged from their off week refreshed and refocused on winning without Lattimore.
“I feel like the bye week gave everybody a chance to kind of mourn about Marcus,” said Kenny Miles, one of Lattimore’s replacements.
Miles ran 14 times for 37 yards Saturday, Mike Davis 13 times for 53 yards and a two-yard touchdown. Their 3.3 combined yards per carry could not equal Lattimore’s 4.6 season average. When asked how USC can improve those numbers, Spurrier partly blamed his offensive line.
“Try to get somebody to block a little bit better,” he said. “I think the guys ran pretty well. It looked like a couple we had a chance to break that we didn’t.”
But it didn’t really matter, because Arkansas has struggled mightily to defend the pass this season, and Saturday was no different. The Razorbacks entered the game 116th of 124 teams nationally, with 292.4 passing yards allowed per game. Shaw completed 14 of 22 passes against them for 272 yards and touchdowns of 29 and 42 yards. His 12.4 yards per attempt were four better than his average entering Saturday.
Arkansas started a redshirt freshman safety and true freshman cornerback, and that was not lost on Shaw, who started nine games last year and on Saturday was starting his ninth this season.
Arkansas’ pass defense issues, and Shaw’s experience, were obvious on Shaw’s 42-yard touchdown pass, to Bruce Ellington with 1:30 left in the first half. It put the Gamecocks up 21-10 entering halftime. Their lead never got any smaller.
The Gamecocks already endured their share of bad karma with Lattimore’s injury, on a play when he could have done nothing to prevent the sickening blow to his leg. They already saw how their own mistakes at LSU and Florida last month cost them a shot at a conference title. But here they are, halfway through November, when games matter most. And theirs still do.