Gamecocks must move on without Lattimore

A white towel covered Marcus Lattimore’s face, but his emotions were plain to see. His head was bobbing as he was carted off the field. It was evident tears were flowing.

No one could blame South Carolina’s star running back for his emotional display.

His right knee was wrecked in the second quarter of the Gamecocks’ 38-35 victory over Tennessee at Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday. It was an injury so gruesome that it made folks shield their eyes from the replay.

For the second time in as many years, one of the SEC’s premier players will not be able to finish the season. Last year, he tore his left ACL while he was blocking against Mississippi State on Oct. 15.

On Saturday, Lattimore took a handoff from Connor Shaw and began to head up field when Tennessee’s Herman Lathers closed quickly and hit Lattimore high. But the damage was done when Eric Gordon propelled himself toward Lattimore’s knees.

The right knee took the brunt of the collision and was twisted at an unnatural angle as Lattimore’s upper body was sent backward. Even in real time, you could tell it was severe.

Lattimore’s career at South Carolina might have ended with 4:45 left in the second quarter.

“I saw the look in his eyes when he was on the ground,” South Carolina receiver Ace Sanders said. “He was heartbroken. We just choked up out there on the field, thinking, ‘Why did it have to be Marcus again.’ It was very hard.”

After the play, when Lattimore was sitting on the grass, his right knee was parallel with the field, but the lower part of his leg was so twisted that his foot pointed to the sky.

Photos and videos of the play quickly filled Twitter and websites and were often accompanied with a disclaimer.

“He was just nodding his head,” defensive end Jadeveon Clowney said. “He was real emotional, crying the whole time. Some people didn’t want to look at it.”

Even though the 13th-ranked Gamecocks (7-2, 5-2 in the SEC) won the game, this was another huge loss for a team that rose to No. 3 in the AP Top 25 after it defeated Georgia on Oct. 6.

South Carolina promptly lost to LSU and were blown out by Florida last week … and now this.

The Gamecocks must find a way to continue without their leading rusher, leading receiver and inspirational leader, a player respected throughout the conference and the country. The Volunteers (3-5, 0-5) demonstrated their support by huddling near Lattimore and standing on the field while he was helped to the cart.

“As a person, there’s none better than him than I’ve ever met,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said.

Without Lattimore, the Gamecocks turned to Shaw.

He threw for a season-high 356 yards and three touchdowns. When he wasn’t completing passes, he became the primary runner on designed draws and sweeps.

His 1-yard option run gave the Gamecocks a 28-14 lead with 14 seconds remaining in the first half.

South Carolina led 38-35 late in the fourth quarter when Clowney finally got loose. He sacked Tennessee’s Tyler Bray and forced a fumble that teammate Shaq Wilson recovered at the Gamecocks’ 19 with 1:08 remaining.

“The coaches were on the sideline saying we got to make something happen right here,” Clowney said. “I said, ‘Coach, I got you.’ I’m going to go out there and give it everything I got to help the team right there.”

South Carolina rallied last year after Lattimore went down, winning five of its final six games without him.

Fortunately for the Gamecocks this year, most of the heavyweights on the schedule are in the past. They have a week to recover from the emotions of Lattimore’s loss before they host Arkansas on Nov. 10.

“It comes at the right time,” Shaw said. “We’re thankful for the bye week.”

Coincidentally, Lattimore spoke to his teammates Friday night after they returned from a movie. He opened up about last year’s injury and coming back in time to play this season.

“He just talked about it last night,” Clowney said. “Act like every play is your last play. Don’t take it for granted. It’s crazy.”