Ground game pivotal in Bulldogs, Gamecocks matchup
COLUMBIA — South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier knows firsthand that freshmen running backs can make a huge impact.
He saw it two years ago with Gamecocks star Marcus Lattimore and hopes things don’t repeat themselves Saturday with Georgia freshmen Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall.
“As we all know, freshmen running backs can certainly play and can play well, just like Marcus came in here two years ago,” Spurrier said. “That’s a position you don’t have to have been there for two years and learn the offense and all that kind of stuff.”
All you have to do is run. Expect to see plenty of handoffs and pitches to the tailback when the fifth-ranked Bulldogs (5-0, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) take on the sixth-ranked Gamecocks (5-0, 3-0) at Williams-Brice Stadium.
South Carolina’s Lattimore and Georgia’s freshmen of Gurley and Marshall – who some fans have dubbed “Gurshall” – are all coming off big performances heading into the SEC Eastern Division showdown.
Lattimore ran for 120 yards and two touchdowns as South Carolina rallied past Kentucky, 38-17.
Gurley and Marshall combined for 294 yards and five TDs rushing in Georgia’s 51-44 shootout against Tennessee. Gurley, the SEC’s leading rusher, gained 130 yards against the Vols, his fourth 100-yard rushing game this season. Marshall rushed for 164 yards on 10 carries, including touchdown runs of 75 and 72 yards.
“It’s very fun, especially when the offense is rolling like it has been rolling,” Marshall said. “Everyone’s been making plays and it’s very exciting.”
Gurley and Marshall have shown the explosiveness of famed Georgia star and 1982 Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker. Lattimore’s powerhouse play is similar to that of South Carolina’s own Heisman Trophy winner, George Rogers, in 1980.
Spurrier, who’s coached standouts like Fred Taylor and Errict Rhett at Florida, couldn’t believe what he saw from Lattimore against Georgia two years ago.
In his first SEC game, Lattimore shredded Georgia’s highly regarded defense for 182 yards and two touchdowns in a dominating 17-6 victory, a game that jumpstarted South Carolina’s run to the SEC East crown.
Spurrier said Lattimore broke about 40 tackles in the game, a powerful showing that even surprised the Gamecocks staff. “It was one of the most amazing days I’ve ever seen a running back have,” Spurrier said.
Lattimore stung the Bulldogs last year at Athens with 176 yards and a touchdown in a 45-42 South Carolina victory. He missed the final six games after tearing a knee ligament and has played strong in his return.
Lattimore’s importance to the offense was crystal clear last Saturday. He had just five carries for 12 yards as the Gamecocks trailed Kentucky 17-7 at halftime. Lattimore rushed 18 times for 108 yards in the second half to help South Carolina outscore the Wildcats 31-0 the final two quarters.
“If we win” against Georgia, Spurrier said, “he will have probably had another big day.”
Lattimore’s rushed for 440 yards this season, third in the SEC behind Gurley and Tennessee’s Rajion Neal. The junior understands he’ll have to step up his game once again for South Carolina to gain its third straight win over Georgia.
“My body feels great right now and I’m only going to continue to get better as the season goes on,” Lattimore said. “I’ve just got to stay patient.”
South Carolina running backs coach Everette Sands said Lattimore and the Gameoccks other runners are aware of the big numbers Gurley and Marshall have put up. Sands thinks his backs are ready for the matchup after last week’s slow start.
“We came back and our guys realized, ‘Hey, on any given Saturday, anybody can beat us,” Sands said.
Gurley and Marshall are making Georgia pretty hard to beat this season. The two say they don’t fight for playing time, eager to watch the other excel in the Bulldogs’ undefeated start.
“Any time he scores I’m jumping up and down just ready for him to get to the sideline to give him words of encouragement,” Gurley said of his freshman teammate.
They’ll get their toughest test of the year against South Carolina. While Gurley and Marshall have combined for 964 yards and nine touchdowns this fall, the Gamecocks have given up just 388 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
The pair will be counted on even more this week since Georgia’s leading receiver, Michael Bennett, tore a knee ligament in practice this week and is lost for the season.
Georgia receiver Tavarres King expects the two freshmen to embrace the challenge as they have all year.
“They are doing a phenomenal job, especially being as young as they are and not knowing what they are getting into,” King said. “They have handled it well.”