Injuries are part of the game. Obviously. But in the weeks after the season passes the quarter pole, after which getting a medical redshirt becomes a near-impossibility, injuries become more significant. And when one of the country's best running backs -- a vital cog in the offense of a top-15 team -- is lost for the season, it is incredibly disappointing. The good news is that Marcus Lattimore is not a senior; he will almost certainly be back, full-speed, for the start of the 2012 season. The bad news is, South Carolina faces a rough go as they attempt to fend off Georgia in the SEC East.
South Carolina and Georgia are currently tied for the division lead at 4-1 each. With a two-game lead over third-place Florida, these two teams are the runaway favorites right now, and with their 45-42 win in Athens on September 10, South Carolina currently owns the tie-breaker. But the Gamecocks have by far the tougher remaining schedule, and they must now attempt to win games without the steadiest weapon on a disappointing offense.
Let's run down the reasons this injury is terrible for South Carolina, and the reasons it is merely bad.
Terrible: South Carolina already had the tougher schedule down the stretch. Here are the Gamecocks' remaining SEC opponents (S&P+ ranking in parentheses): at Tennessee (19th), at Arkansas (27th), Florida (30th). Here are Georgia's remaining games: vs Florida (30th), Auburn (57th), Kentucky (110th). South Carolina's easiest remaining opponent is Georgia's most difficult. Georgia has already played all three of their true road games (their neutral-field battle versus Florida in two weeks counts as their fourth 'road game'), and they finish the schedule with two home games, one against the conference's worst team. South Carolina, meanwhile, follows up their coming bye week with trips to face two dangerous, if flawed, opponents.
It is quite possible that the Gamecocks can still fend off the Dawgs, but they will have to lean even more heavily on a strained defense.
Merely Bad: South Carolina's offense wasn't very good anyway. The Gamecocks currently rank 52nd in Off. S&P+, 45th on the ground. In only one of the last four games have they played at even an average level, and that came against Kentucky. The quarterback position has been, to say the least, a question mark, and star receiver Alshon Jeffery has had a disappointing season. Carolina ranks a brutal 75th in Passing Downs S&P+. One bad play on first-and-10, and the drive is probably over. Not a recipe for establishing a strong running game. If they were struggling to establish the run with Lattimore, and if (as we'll see below), they were running the ball less already, then how much can you mourn the loss of a running back, even a good one?
Terrible: Lattimore had no proven backups. Here are the South Carolina Gamecocks who have carried the ball more than four times this season: Lattimore (163 carries), quarterback Connor Shaw (40), quarterback Stephen Garcia (34, no longer with the team), freshman running back Brandon Wilds (13) and sophomore receiver/Wildcat quarterback Bruce Ellington (11). That's it.
Lattimore had accounted for 79 percent of South Carolina's non-quarterback carries, and it is difficult to project what his backups might (or might not) be capable of accomplishing with extended carries. The assumed new starter is three-star freshman Wilds, who has carried the ball just 13 times in 2011. (Five of those carries came against Kentucky, so I'm not even sure that counts.)
Merely Bad: Lattimore's recent stats weren't very good anyway. Lattimore is masterful at following blocks, but he really hasn't created much at the second level. His most positive trait has been the way he tends to improve with the most carries he receives. He received 20 or fewer carries in three games this year, and he averaged just a combined 3.4 yards per carry in those three. When carrying the ball between 21 and 26 times in a game, he averaged 4.8 yards per carry. When carrying 27 times or more, he averaged 6.6 yards per carry. His long for the season was just 36 yards (he also had a 52-yard reception), but what he lacked in both explosiveness and highlight yards, he made up for in consistency and the ability to carry a heavy load. The problem, of course, is that after averaging 29 carries per game in the first three weeks, he was only averaging 19 in the last four, and his effectiveness was limited because of that.
As quarterback Stephen Garcia began to prove that Good Stephen wasn't going to make many appearances this year, South Carolina's play-calling approach began to shift (even before Garcia was kicked off the team). After running the ball 70.4 percent of the time on standard downs through the first four games, the Gamecocks only ran 56.8 percent of the time on those downs in the last three. Meanwhile, they began running more on passing downs -- their run percentage on passing downs was 30.4 percent in the first four games, 38.3 percent in the last three (many of those runs were made by Shaw).
This is what you do when you want to take as much heat as possible off of the quarterback; you pass when opponents are expecting the run, and you run when opponents are expecting the pass.
Without Lattimore, we might see an even further shift in this regard. The return of Damiere Byrd from suspension gives Carolina another interesting (if not proven) weapon in the passing game, and lord knows Jeffery should perhaps see more than the eight targets he saw last week. We might also see extended use of the Wildcat set that sees Ellington behind center, along with perhaps some jet sweeps. Without their workhorse running back, and with a quarterback they don't entirely trust yet, Steve Spurrier and his offensive staff are going to have to utilize every play-calling weapon in their arsenal to keep opponents off-guard.
The Carolina defense is good, and against shaky offenses like Tennessee (a unit without quarterback Tyler Bray and receiver Justin Hunter) and Florida (a team with even more quarterback issues and fewer options at receiver), they may need to only score in the teens to give themselves a chance. But against Arkansas in particular (21st in Off. S&P+), they will need to produce.
If Georgia beats Florida in Jacksonville in two weeks, South Carolina will probably have to go undefeated to win their second straight East title. With a strong defense, they will certainly have a chance, but Marcus Lattimore's injury gives them no margin for error. Suddenly, defensive lineman Melvin Ingram is their second-most accomplished offensive player, and Steve Spurrier will have to pull off his best coaching effort in quite some time to engineer a return to the SEC title game.
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