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September 5, 2011

Lattimore eyes encore outing against Bulldogs



Once Marcus Lattimore shook off the first-quarter blahs on Saturday, he settled into the typical game fans have come to expect from the super sophomore.

Lattimore didn't have a 30- or 40-yard run against East Carolina (his longest gain was 16 yards), but he still finished with 112 yards on 23 carries as he methodically wore down the Pirates' defense.

When ECU scored a touchdown to cut USC's lead to 35-31 midway through the third quarter, what did USC do? Smartly handed the ball to Lattimore, who churned out 38 yards on seven carries during a decisive 10-play, 59-yard scoring drive that culminated with a 1-yard touchdown run from the Byrnes High School graduate.

Now Lattimore faces Georgia again.

A year ago, he was still a curiosity from a national perspective. Most college football fans nationally knew that he had been the top running back prospect in the country during the 2010 recruiting cycle, but he had only 54 rushing yards in his debut against Southern Miss.

So there were no warnings of the hurricane about to be unleashed.

Lattimore created a national buzz when he powered through the Georgia defense for 182 yards and two touchdowns, bursting onto the SEC scene by carrying the ball 37 times in his first conference game.

Too many carries? Not as far as Lattimore is concerned.

"Once I get into my groove, I feel more comfortable running the ball," Lattimore said on Saturday after the opening-game win. "The offensive line is gelling and I'm just reading what they're doing. That gets me stronger once I get more carries."

A year later, Lattimore won't be able to surprise Georgia at all. In fact, count on Bulldog defensive coordinator Todd Grantham to design a game plan around trying to stop him and forcing USC to throw the ball.

Will USC take the bait or will Steve Spurrier continue to pound his prized pupil at the Bulldogs, hoping USC will successfully execute the inside zone to perfection like it did last season in a 17-6 victory at Williams-Brice Stadium? Count on the latter.

The numbers bear it out. When Lattimore is able to run the football, USC wins. The Gamecocks are 7-0 when he rushes for 90 or more yards. As goes Lattimore, so goes the Gamecocks? Yes. But even he acknowledges there is more to the equation.

"It goes as far as the offensive line goes," Lattimore said. "Those front five are our gel. I just need to be a little more patient reading my blocks."

In the first half of Saturday's game, USC rushed the ball 19 times and threw it 16 times. In the second half, though, it ran the ball 21 times in 30 snaps as Lattimore carried the ball 13 times for 72 yards.

"We knew we had to make plays and play better than how we were playing," Lattimore said. "ECU was a good game, but we could have played better in the first half."

No opposing coach knows better about Lattimore playing well than Georgia coach Mark Richt, who watched helplessly from the sidelines last year as Lattimore gashed the Georgia defense over and over.

USC finished with 189 yards rushing on 52 attempts as the Gamecocks dominated the line of scrimmage and the Bulldogs' 3-4 defense was reduced to rubble.

"You've got to gang-tackle the guy. Not many guys can just one-on-one tackle him and set him down," Richt said in a teleconference on Sunday. "He's just a tremendously strong kid. He can run through tackles and maybe not necessarily completely break a tackle, but if you finish forward for 2 or 3 yards after contact, that's still pretty good, especially if that contact happens past the line of scrimmage. Those 1- or 2-yard runs become 3-, 4- or 5-yard runs, and that's huge. That's kind of what he did to us all game last year."

How spectacularly good was Lattimore against Georgia last season? An Atlanta-based columnist compared him to SEC legends Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson afterwards.

"The great majority of his runs were inside-zone runs and runs where he would run through and knock people back," Richt said. "That's a big challenge for everybody to get involved. If their O-line does a great job of creating a wider space, the wider the hole is and the better chance that back has of making him miss or slipping him to one side or the other and knocking him back.

"But if the hole is not very big, then that linebacker has a lot better chance of hitting him and knocking him back."

Since USC and Georgia last met, Lattimore has not only developed into one of the top running backs in all of college football and a Heisman Trophy contender, but a respected team leader as well.

In other words, the state of affairs surrounding Lattimore have changed dramatically since USC's dominating win in Columbia 12 months ago.

"I feel like I've set myself up as a leader," Lattimore said. "I just have to encourage guys. That's what I like to do and that's what I want to do. I'm glad they do look up to me."

The supporting cast around Lattimore is improved, too. Bruce Ellington showed flashes of what he is capable of doing with the ball in his hand on Saturday.

"I've said it a million times that he is an electric player," Lattimore said. "He can hurt you in any phase of the game. He is going to be a big part of our offense this year. I'm so glad to have him."

The Georgia media favorably compared Bulldog freshman running back Isaiah Crowell to Lattimore before the season started, and Crowell actually had more yards (60) than Lattimore did in his college debut.

But is Crowell prepared to amass 182 yards against South Carolina on Saturday? Never say never, of course, but the odds are overwhelmingly against it happening.

"Every conference game is a big game," Lattimore said. "We have to prepare this week and get ready for that defense. They lost (to Boise State), so they're going to be a mad defense."

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