COLUMBIA — With injured running back Marcus Lattimore watching online at home in Duncan, about 1,500 fans attended a support rally for him Monday afternoon on South Carolina’s Horseshoe.
Lattimore suffered a severe right knee injury in Saturday’s win over Tennessee, damaging several ligaments, and he might not be able to play again until the 2014 season. Monday was his 21st birthday, and USC organized the rally to celebrate it.
Among those who spoke at the event: USC coach Steve Spurrier, team chaplain Adrian Despres, backup quarterback Dylan Thompson, tailback Kenny Miles (Lattimore’s replacement), USC president Harris Pastides and Sen. Lindsey Graham. Behind the speakers were four posters covered in signatures surrounding large words of encouraging like “Get Well Soon Marcus.”
Pastides said Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin declared Monday to be Marcus Lattimore Day in the city. Pastides passed along birthday wishes and a message of support from Vice President Joe Biden, via former USC football player Fran Person, who works for Biden. Then Spurrier read a proclamation from Gov. Nikki Haley declaring a statewide Marcus Lattimore Day on Monday. Spurrier handed the proclamation to Lattimore’s sister, Eboni White.
Pastides said he visited Lattimore in the hospital Sunday and told the crowd, “I want you to know that his spirit is strong and he feels the depth of your prayers of support.”
Despres led a prayer and shared a text message from Lattimore that read, in part: “The love and support I have received from the Gamecock Nation has kept my spirit up. I will fight to get better and I will pursue whatever road God has planned for me.”
Thompson was 10 years old when he met Lattimore. Like Lattimore, Thompson is religious, Thompson said Lattimore told him when they visited Monday, “God is good and I know he has a perfect plan for my life.”
Spurrier reminded fans that “this is not a memorial service,” and said Lattimore wanted him to say to the crowd, “Tell ‘em I’ll be back.” Lattimore has the option of turning pro after this season, but Spurrier indicated Lattimore currently plans to return to USC.
“We’re going to get Marcus for four or five years instead of three,” Spurrier said. “That’s one positive we know of.”
The rally ended with Despres and several USC players leading fans in singing “Happy Birthday” to Lattimore, and the players hugging each other as the crowd chanted Lattimore’s name.
After nine straight weeks of playing, USC is off this week as it prepares for its final three regular season games, starting Nov. 10 at home against Arkansas. It will begin at noon and air on WCSC (CBS), the Southeastern Conference announced Monday.
USC has lost three straight games to Arkansas — 33-16 in 2009, 41-20 in 2010 and 44-28 in 2011. The Razorbacks finished 8-5, 10-3 and 11-2 in those seasons under coach Bobby Petrino, who was forced out after last season, his fourth in Fayetteville, following a motorcycle crash that exposed an extramarital affair with an athletic department employee.
In his USC career, coach Steve Spurrier is 2-5 against Arkansas. But Arkansas has struggled this season under interim coach John L. Smith. The Razorbacks are 3-5 (2-3 SEC). They host Tulsa this week. Arkansas ranks No. 120 of 124 teams nationally in pass defense (301.3 yards per game) and No. 17 in passing offense (309.6).
“They may be the best passing offense in the conference,” Spurrier said.
USC quarterback Connor Shaw was named SEC offensive player of the week Monday after completing 22 of 32 passes for a career-best 356 yards, three touchdowns and one interception in Saturday’s 38-35 win over Tennessee.
“It was a game we had to throw the ball, and Connor threw the ball beautifully,” Spurrier said. “It was good to see Connor step in there and make the throws and not run all the time.”
Spurrier said Shaw has “a little bit of a foot sprain.” USC’s best defensive player, end Jadeveon Clowney, has dealt with a deep bruise in his right foot since the Oct. 6 win over Georgia. Defensive tackle Byron Jerideau and offensive right tackle Brandon Shell (Goose Creek High) have sprained ankles. Backup cornerback Akeem Auguste missed the Tennessee game with a groin injury.
So the off week comes at a good time for the Gamecocks, who moved up from No. 17 to No. 11 in the Associated Press poll, from No. 16 to No. 11 in the coaches’ poll and from No. 13 to No. 8 in the Bowl Championship Series rankings.
“It’s been a long stretch, man,” Clowney said.
Said cornerback Victor Hampton: “We needed a bye week really bad. The last few weeks have been really tough. We get to give our bodies some rest.”
Spurrier said USC will practice today, Wednesday and Thursday this week.