No. 14 Gamecocks face Vols without RB Lattimore
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP)
South Carolina (6-1, 4-1 Southeastern Conference) returns to work after a week off to rest and absorb the news that Lattimore, their star tailback and the SEC's leading rusher much of the year, is out after his season-ending knee injury suffered at Mississippi State two weeks ago.
Freshman Brandon Wilds, behind four others on South Carolina's depth chart this summer, will get his first start Saturday night at Neyland Stadium. ''He was number five,'' Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said. ''Now, he's number one.''
At least Wilds can turn to Lattimore for advice and encouragement. Spurrier said Lattimore, still second in the SEC with 818 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground, wanted to travel with the team and take part in all the meetings.
''That's inspirational, but not a surprise,'' left tackle Rokevious Watkins said.
Watkins said Lattimore has been a team-first since he arrived in 2010 and helped the Gamecocks to an SEC Eastern Division title. The team was stunned two Saturdays ago when Lattimore, blocking downfield for receiver Bruce Ellington, had a defender roll up his right leg, damaging a ligament and cartilage.
Spurrier got a surprise early last week when he saw Lattimore on time and ready for an offensive meeting. ''What are you doing here?'' Spurrier asked.
Lattimore is awaiting surgery, followed by months of rehabilitation to get ready for the 2012 season. Still, the coach said his offensive playmaker can make a mark on the Gamecocks' stretch run this fall.
''He'll be with us in spirit and encouragement,'' the coach said. ''I'm sure he'll be a super teammate on the sideline cheering for his teammates out there.''
The Gamecock offense could use all the support it can get. South Carolina has lost two of its three main offensive standouts in Lattimore and dismissed quarterback Stephen Garcia who it to the SEC title game last season.
Sophomore Connor Shaw has taken over for Garcia, going 2-0 with wins over Kentucky and Mississippi State. Shaw threw for 311 yards and four touchdowns against the Wildcats. He didn't have the same production in the 14-12 win over the Bulldogs, but did lead South Carolina on a fourth-quarter touchdown drive to move in front for good.
Shaw was 4-of-4 passing on the game-winning series, including a 4-yard touchdown pass to star receiver Alshon Jeffery.
The week off was as much adjusting to Lattimore's absence as the chance to Shaw to improve his technique and leadership. Spurrier hopes the Gamecocks succeeded on both fronts.
We don't know until we play the game,'' Spurrier said. ''It's all speculation until you play.''
And the Gamecocks need to play well. They are tied for the SEC East lead with red-hot Georgia, winners of five in a row. While South Carolina owns the head-to-head tiebreaker with its September win in Athens, the players understand there's no room for slipping up against the Vols (3-4), 0-4 in the SEC.
The players held a meeting without the coaches on Monday, the upperclassmen stressing the goals within reach if they continue working hard.
''We can't be focused on anything else,'' linebacker Rodney Paulk said.
Everyone understands the task becomes harder without Lattimore, who rushed for 184 yards and a touchdown in last year's 38-24 win over Tennessee.
Vols defensive lineman Corey Miller, Lattimore's teammate at Byrnes High in Duncan, will miss the matchup with his friend. ''He's down with an injury, which is disappointing, but all the same, it's Tennessee versus South Carolina, it's another SEC game,'' Miller said.
Wilds, a freshman from Blythewood High, is 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds, nearly the same size as the 6-foot, 231-pound Lattimore. Spurrier said he's also seen some power and speed from Wilds at practice that gives him hope of success at Tennessee.
''If we get the ball enough and block a little bit, he certainly can make some yards,'' Spurrier said.
Maybe not as many as Lattimore, though. That means South Carolina will again call on its defense, which gave up 15 points the past two games, to keep things close while the offense finds its rhythm.
Watkins said Wilds is ready for his chance and the Gamecocks are ready for a final title push, starting this weekend.
''Our goal is to win football games,'' Watkins said. ''That's what we're going to try to do.''