Georgia football coach Mark Richt knew something was different at South Carolina. Freshman Marcus Lattimore on a sunny Saturday in 2010 rushed for 182 yards and two touchdowns on 37 carries during an unexpectedly dominant 17-6 victory in Columbia.
“Steve,” Richt said to Spurrier right after the game, “you’ve got a heck of a team.”
That was the turning point for South Carolina in its rise from a pretty good program to a three-year SEC title contender, though head coach Steve Spurrier disagrees.
“It happened when Marcus Lattimore said, ‘I’m coming to the University of South Carolina,’ ” Spurrier said Wednesday as Lattimore officially announced his decision to turn professional.
No quibbling about the overall impact of No. 21. The Gamecocks went on to win their first Southeastern Conference East Division crown in 2010 and won a school-best 11 games in 2011. They take a 10-2 record to the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl.
Typically, South Carolina had been swept by Georgia, Florida and Tennessee in 2009. But Lattimore’s breakout performance ushered in a stretch in which the Gamecocks won eight straight games against their toughest SEC East rivals.
Lattimore’s brief, shining tenure as a South Carolina running back ended Oct. 27 during the Gamecocks’ 38-35 victory over Tennessee. It was a severe knee injury heard ‘round the football world — college and the NFL.
Lattimore appreciates the inspirational comparisons to running backs that bounced back after major knee surgery.
Willis McGahee and Frank Gore reached out.
The cast of recovering stars includes Terrell Davis, Jamaal Charles, Terry Allen and Edgerrin James.
Just last week, Adrian Peterson ran for 154 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Minnesota Vikings to a 21-14 victory over the Chicago Bears — despite suffering a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee in a game last Dec. 24.
But kudos for Dr. Jeffrey Guy, South Carolina’s team orthopedist, for cautioning Wednesday that it’s “difficult to compare” knee injuries.
Lattimore might not be able to pass an NFL physical for a year, but the junior from Duncan will ace any team’s character test.
“The intangibles he brings to a team are what a coach looks for,” Spurrier said.
And so it’s over, Lattimore’s short and sweet college career loaded with unprecedented feats and sporadic heartache.
He finishes as the Gamecocks’ career leader in touchdowns (41) and touchdowns rushing (38).
He led South Carolina to three straight wins against Georgia.
Strangely, he played in only 29 games. Lattimore rushed for a grand total of 48 yards against Clemson.
He didn’t take part in a bowl win.
But Marcus Lattimore remains the face of this elite “new Carolina” run, a classy and productive ambassador for a program unfamiliar with such relatively sustained success.
That is his legacy.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff