When I think about Marcus Lattimore, the first thing I think about is what a shame it is that such a promising career was cut short by a freak injury.
The second thing I think is what a standup guy Marcus is. As someone with a generally skeptical and ironic attitude towards life, I find it difficult to use the phrase "standup guy," but with Marcus it comes easy.
The next thing I think about is the 2010 season.
The 2010 college football season seems a lot longer ago than it actually is. I think that's in part a function of the thorough elevation in expectations around the Gamecocks program since that year. After spending four years in the national rankings, including three-straight eleven-win seasons, the old days for USC football seem quite distant. Driving home this fact is that Carolina fans are currently disgusted by a season that would have seemed par for the course several years ago.
That all changed in 2010. Going into 2010, I recall feeling confident that Carolina would have a breakthrough season--by winning eight regular-season games, with a chance for a ninth and a fringe top-25 ranking final ranking with bowl season. I certainly didn't feel that it was likely that Carolina would win the SEC East; after all, even if we got by UGA, Florida's offense wasn't expected to skip a beat with John Brantley at the helm, and we had to play the Gators in Gainesville.
As it turned out, Carolina won nine games that year en route to its first and still only trip to the SEC Championship Game. What's more, while a struggling Eastern Division certainly played a role in the Gamecocks' fortunes, USC had the look of a budding elite program. While maddeningly inconsistent in a road loss to a mediocre Kentucky team and then a blowout home loss to an Arkansas team that was good but shouldn't have beaten Carolina so badly, the Gamecocks looked downright specular in a shocking 14-point win over what was thought to be an unbeatable Alabama team and then later an absolute blowout in Gainesville over the Gators.
While there were some other key pieces to the team, in particular Stephen Garcia (who was very good at times in 2010), Alshon Jeffery (he was a human highlight reel that year), and a knockout defensive line (good heavens I wish we still had some of those guys on this year's team), Marcus Lattimore was the key cog in the transition.
What made Lattimore such a difference maker on that team? While the 2010 season featured the best offensive line Carolina had fielded in several years, you have to remember that after years of atrocious line play, to say that the 2010 unit was the best in recent memory wasn't saying much. That 2010 line wasn't as good as the line we have this year.
That didn't matter as much as you'd think, though, because Lattimore was so adept at gaining yards after contact. His performance against Georgia, in which this talent was on ample display, was a revelation for Gamecocks fans. It had been a long time since the Gamecocks had fielded a truly dominant rushing attack. The lack of a ground game was so costly in 2008 that Spurrier hired Eric Wolford in 2009 to help install zone-read principles in an effort to inject life into the offense. After 2008, the 2009 Kenny Miles/Brian Maddox duo was very refreshing, but it was nothing compared to what Lattimore, with the help of Wolford's replacement Shawn Elliott, gave us in 2010. Yet it wasn't just the zone-read but Lattimore's balanced, bruising running style that made him such a game-changer. It was fun to watch a throwback, legitimately elite player don the Garnet and Black and lead Carolina to victories that season.
Lattimore also quickly showed that he was the elusive "complete back" by helping Carolina not only by toting the rock but also by catching passes and helping block. When I think of the Gamecocks' breakthrough win over top-ranked Alabama, the Lattimore play that immediately comes to mind isn't a run but the block he laid to ensure that Stephen Garcia was able to rush for a first down on a key early drive.
Lattimore's greatest feat of the season, though, came in Gainesville against Florida, when the Gamecocks routed the Gators and clinched the program's only SEC East title. For my money, this is the signature win of the Spurrier era. It was bigger than the win over Alabama earlier in the season, bigger than the 2012 win over Georgia, bigger than the bowl wins. Why was it so huge? For me, it wasn't just that we won the SEC East. It was also that I really had trouble seeing us win this game. The Gamecocks had had opportunities like this in prior seasons, but they had always come up short, sometimes in pathetic fashion. Carolina had never won in the Swamp and more often than not was blown off the field there. To make matters particularly grim, the 'Cocks limped into the game after an ugly loss to Arkansas. I predicted a loss in my preview here at GABA and felt grimly confident in the prediction.
What happened next was better than my wildest hopes: The Gamecocks not only beat Florida to take home the division title, but they embarrassed the Gators. After Andre Debose took back the opening kickoff for a TD, leading Carolina fans to collectively sigh, "here we go again," it was all Gamecocks for the rest of the game. And it was Marcus Lattimore who led the way. Lattimore wasn't the only element in the victory. The Gamecocks defense, particularly its pass rush, forced one of the ugliest offensive performances I've ever seen from an Urban Meyer-coached squad. Stephen Garcia had an impressive game, avoiding turnovers and making some key throws to move the chains.
But it was Lattimore's punishing rushing performance that really stood out. With the Gators defense struggling while spending most of the night on the field due to the Gators' offensive woes, Lattimore got better and better as the game progressed, breaking through with a 20+-yard touchdown to begin the second half that had everyone believing, "this might be the night." By the time he punched one more into the endzone to put the icing on the cake in the fourth quarter, he had over 200 yards. Some folks even said he deserved Heisman consideration after the game. For Carolina fans, though, what was so magical was that he led the way in proving that Carolina could, indeed, win a game of this magnitude.
On the eve of the Gamecocks' 2014 trip to Gainesville, it's hard to believe that just four years after that game, perhaps the most memorable I've experienced as a Carolina fan, that Lattimore's career is over. That career has been full of tragedy since that night in November 2010, and my heart aches for a talented individual who simply deserved much better. The good news is that for those of us who have followed Lattimore throughout his career, it's clear that he's someone who will succeed in whatever walk of life he pursues now that he's done playing football. For now, though, I'd just like to write, thanks for those 2010 memories, Marcus.