COLUMBIA —It was a seemingly innocuous running play, the third snap of South Carolina’s game last Saturday night at LSU.
On third down and 1 from the Gamecocks’ 34-yard line, Connor Shaw handed off to Marcus Lattimore, who had just run for five yards on second down. But on third and 1, Lattimore was stuffed for no gain.
“That mentally just kind of busted us,” said USC offensive line coach Shawn Elliott. “Nobody expected on third and 1 that we were going to get stuffed like that. Certainly I didn’t. Those guys up front didn’t. And it happened. They hit us right in the mouth and it kind of shocked us a little bit.”
Little else went right in USC’s running game the rest of the night. The Gamecocks finished with 25 carries for 34 yards in their 23-21 loss. Lattimore, one of the nation’s best tailbacks, had 13 carries for 35 yards. USC hadn’t run for fewer than 131 yards or 3.7 per carry in any of its previous six games this season.
After Lattimore’s third-and-1 stuff, he was stopped later in the first half for one yard on third and 2 and a loss of one on third and 1, though he picked up the ensuing fourth down. He carried just three times for 10 yards after halftime, mainly because of ineffective blocking that typified a rollercoaster year for Elliott’s line.
Winning the line of scrimmage is a critical part of any game, especially one against a superior or evenly matched opponent — and USC will play its third straight such opponent this afternoon when it visits Florida.
At LSU, South Carolina lost on both sides of the line, with its rushing offense and defense. The ninth-ranked Gamecocks can’t let that happen again at third-ranked Florida in game that USC essentially must win if it wants to remain in contention for the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division championship. A loss would force USC to rely on lots of help to win the East. Even if USC beats undefeated Florida, it must take care of business at home next week against Tennessee and in three weeks, after an off week, against Arkansas at home. Though a win over Florida wouldn’t give USC the East, it would make the Gamecocks 2-1 in this season-defining and historic October stretch of matchups between top 10 teams. USC had played just four top 10 vs. top 10 games before this run.
“If we bounce back and we’ve got the intensity and effort and enthusiasm that we need to go forward, we should be fine,” Elliott said. “But we’re going to have a fight on our hands.”
At Florida, Elliott’s line will face the nation’s No. 19 rushing defense (107.5 yards allowed per game). USC’s linemen are tested from having faced LSU, which now ranks No. 6 with 89.3 rushing yards allowed per game. But they will have to block, at least initially, for Kenny Miles rather than Lattimore.
Miles, who has 27 carries for 100 yards this season, will start for Lattimore, who bruised his hip at LSU. But Lattimore could still play.
Consider that LSU ran for 258 yards and 4.9 yards per carry against USC, which still ranks No. 20 in rush defense (108.7). But Florida beat LSU by limiting the Tigers to 42 yards and 1.7 per carry. Moreover, the Gators’ defense should be at full strength this weekend, after linebacker Jelani Jenkins and defensive end Dominique Easley were both sidelined recently with injuries.
“Ups and downs are part of football, and that’s something you’ve got to deal with as a coach,” Elliott said, reflecting on USC’s performance at LSU compared to its 35-7 win a week earlier over Georgia. “You hate to see a team go from playing probably as well as they could to playing probably as bad as they could in a week’s time.”
But, Elliott said, “All our goals are still there. There’s so much ahead of us.” Elliott recalled telling his players in the locker room after the LSU game, “One win didn’t make our football team, beating Georgia. One loss ain’t going to make our football team, losing to LSU. We’ve got to get this thing out of us.”
Today in Gainesville, Elliott said, “We’re going to see how it’s affected us and see if we’ve moved on. We’re going to find out just how tough we are when we go down there to Florida. But I think we’ll move forward.”