COLUMBIA — At some point, the kid had to slow down. He couldn’t break tackles like this all day, could he?
South Carolina’s coaches knew tailback Marcus Lattimore had significant potential, but he couldn’t be this good, this soon, could he?
He could, as it turned out. Lattimore showed just how good in the second game of his freshman season in 2010. It was against Georgia — the rival he will face for perhaps the final time Saturday night when the fifth-ranked Bulldogs play at No. 6 USC.
USC’s 17-6 win over Georgia in 2010, in which Lattimore ran 37 times for
182 yards and two touchdowns, is not the best statistical game of his career. He has three games with more yards, topped by 246 last year against Navy. But Sept. 11, 2010, was the day Lattimore announced himself to the college football world.
“I just feel like my offensive line was doing such a great job that it gave me an opportunity to break tackles and show what I could do,” he said. “I felt like I could do it at this level and I proved it that game. But that was two years ago.”
He followed it with an even better per-carry performance last season in a 45-42 win over Georgia — 27 carries for 176 yards and a touchdown, for the fifth-most yards of his career, against a team that finished No. 11 nationally in rushing yards allowed per game.
If USC is to beat Georgia again Saturday and move a step closer to winning the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division, it likely will need a successful outing from Lattimore, who gets a national stage to show he is recovered from the season-ending knee injury suffered last Oct. 15.
Lattimore, a junior, is projected as mid- to late-first round NFL draft pick and seems likely to turn pro after this season. A running back — especially one who already experienced a serious knee injury — only has so many carries in his body, at least from the perspective of pro scouts.
Lattimore has already given USC plenty of memories. He leads the school’s all-time list in total touchdowns (38) and rushing touchdowns (35). With 45 yards against Georgia, he will become the seventh USC player to run for 2,500 in his career. He has a legitimate shot at being the third to reach 3,000 yards.
For some observers, the most vivid memory of Lattimore will remain the 2010 Georgia game. On the first drive, he carried 10 times for 50 yards.
His first-half stats: 21 runs for 103 yards. In the fourth quarter, he ran nine times for 60 yards, including gains of 16 and 24. For the game, he had eight carries of 10-plus yards and was stopped for no gain or a loss just five times.
Most remarkably, the coaches credited him with about 40 broken tackles, according to G.A. Mangus, the quarterbacks coach.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen that, much less from an 18-year-old,” Mangus said. “It just kept going. It was an amazing performance, just how low and forward (Lattimore ran). Everything was forward. He just never got knocked backward.”
Lattimore’s fourth quarter against Georgia two years ago demonstrated his power. For his career, his second-best quarter is the first quarter (5.28 yards per carry). His best is the fourth quarter (5.44 yards per carry).
“Everybody is wearing down and he’s getting stronger, it seems like,” said USC quarterback Connor Shaw.
In last week’s win at Kentucky, Lattimore overwhelmed the Wildcats’ struggling run defense in the second half, when he carried 18 times for 108 yards and the Gamecocks ran the same power run play out of the I-formation time and again. Lattimore likes that play, Mangus said.
Running backs coach Everette Sands said it “definitely lends its hand to what he does best.”
But, Shaw said, “we just can’t go out there and run power against Georgia every play and expect to beat them.”
The Bulldogs have struggled against the run. They are allowing 147.8 rushing yards per game, No. 9 in the SEC, though their 3.73 yards per carry allowed rank No. 7.
Saturday is the midpoint of this return season for Lattimore. He entered 2012 with a career per-game average of 100.8 yards. Though he has just 88 per game so far, his 4.78 yards per carry approach his 4.81 from 2010 and 5.02 from 2011. His knee injury seems a distant memory, and he is ready now to do what he does best — finish.
“My body feels great right now, and I’m only going to continue to get better as the season goes on,” he said. “I’ve just got to stay patient and it’ll start breaking just like it usually does.”