Season-ending injuries to star running backs force top 10 squads USC, Arkansas to reload

South Carolina freshman running back Brandon Wilds filled in admirably for the injured Marcus Lattimore against Tennessee on Saturday.

COLUMBIA -- Saturday's game between South Carolina and Arkansas was supposed to showcase two of the nation's best tailbacks. It was supposed to provide a prominent stage -- a meeting of two of the Southeastern Conference's best teams -- for USC sophomore Marcus Lattimore and Arkansas junior Knile Davis.

But in college football, things don't always work out the way they're supposed to. So there was Davis, leaving an August scrimmage on a cart after hurting his left ankle. And there was Lattimore, at Mississippi State three weeks ago, with a brace on his left knee as he leaned on crutches. Both would receive the worst four-word prognosis a player can hear: out for the season.

Their backfield plans scuttled, the

Gamecocks and Razorbacks have turned to tailbacks who lack the reputation of Lattimore and Davis, but get a chance prove themselves in Saturday's matchup of 7-1 teams.

South Carolina will go with true freshman Brandon Wilds, who carried 28 times for 137 yards in last week's win at Tennessee, after having just 13 carries for 75 yards before that. Arkansas is relying primarily on juniors Dennis Johnson and Ronnie Wingo Jr.

Playing more snaps is an adjustment for Wilds, if only because it is more physically demanding. On USC's 98-yard touchdown drive at Tennessee, he had 11 carries for 51 yards. Can he do something similar against Arkansas, which ranks No. 89 nationally in rushing defense?

Running backs coach Jay Graham said Wilds was "a little winded" at times Saturday and "a little sore" Sunday, though no doubt happy to ache after getting more playing time.

"We're going to make sure he kind of runs hard during practice so he can be in tip-top shape this Saturday," Graham said. Wilds was not made available for interviews this week.

Despite his playing pains Sunday, Wilds was curious about his mistakes when he and Graham reviewed the Tennessee film. Quarterback Connor Shaw noticed the same type of curiosity from Wilds during the two weeks between Lattimore's injury and the next game, Tennessee.

"In the film room, he was always asking questions, asking me what to do, just making sure he had all the assignments down," Shaw said.

On Sunday, Graham said he and Wilds reviewed the importance of "pad leverage" and taking the precise and proper steps on certain plays. The coaches have no plans to simplify the running game just because Wilds lacks experience, Graham said. Some young tailbacks struggle with pass protection because they rarely needed to do it in high school. But Graham said protection is "easier for (Wilds) at times" because he is 6-1 and 223 pounds.

Coincidentally, Arkansas' Davis found himself in a similar position to Wilds last year. Davis carried just 20 times in the first four games combined. Johnson went down in the second game with a bowel injury. In the final nine games, Davis averaged 20.4 carries and 133.4 yards, leading the Razorbacks to the Sugar Bowl, their first "big four" bowl game since 1987.

Davis and Lattimore finished second and third in the SEC in rushing, behind Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, with 101.7 and 92.1 yards, respectively. Davis had better numbers last year in Arkansas' 41-20 win over South Carolina -- 22 carries for 110 yards and three touchdowns, compared to 11 for 30 for Lattimore.

Johnson, who entered the season as the SEC's active leader in total return yards, had just two career 100-yard rushing games before running for a career-best 160 on 15 carries two games ago against Mississippi. Wingo Jr. carried just twice that day. The carries were more even last week against Vanderbilt -- nine for 52 yards for Johnson, 10 for 30 yards for Wingo Jr.

Arkansas has the SEC's No. 2 offense (452.9 yards per game), though credit for that belongs to its passing game, which ranks No. 9 nationally with 321.1 yards and No. 20 with 38.5 attempts per game (six more than any other SEC team).

The Razorbacks are still running 45 percent of the time this season, so coach Bobby Petrino wants his running game to rank better than No. 10 in the SEC and No. 82 nationally. Or at least that's what he was planning on during the summer.

But in Fayetteville, as in Columbia, the backfield plans are in the past.