COLUMBIA, S.C. — A turbulent week for No. 14 South Carolina closed with devastating news: Star tailback Marcus Lattimore is out for the year with a knee injury.
"Our worst fears were realized," Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said Sunday.
Spurrier said Lattimore had a torn ligament in his left knee and also suffered some cartilage damage. Lattimore will require surgery, although doctors want to keep the knee braced and allow it stabilze for several weeks before operating. Lattimore had been the main engine for South Carolina's offense this season with 818 yards and 10 touchdowns rushing this season. He was leading the Southeastern Conference in rushing most of the season before getting overtaken by Alabama's Trent Richardson.
Lattimore gained only 39 yards, but had a 4-yard touchdown run in South Carolina's 14-12 win at Mississippi State on Saturday.
It was in the fourth quarter that Lattimore's stellar year came to end. He was blocking for Bruce Ellington when a Bulldogs defender rolled up on Lattimore's left leg. He was worked on for several minutes before getting help to the sidelines.
Lattimore's mother, Yolanda Smith, rushed to her son's side and several players came by the trainer's table to check on him and pray. Lattimore left Davis Wade Stadium with a large brace covering most of his left leg and walking on crutches.
"Well, we're all disappointed, but we all realize life's got to go on and somebody has to fill his shoes," Spurrier said.
That will be freshman Brandon Wilds, who considered redshirting because he was fourth tailback on the depth chart. "Now he's the top guy," Spurrier said, and will likely start at Tennessee on Oct. 29, South Carolina's next game.
Spurrier saw Lattimore in the training room on Sunday morning and said the sophomore was taking it about as well as you might expect. Spurrier counseled him to keep his head up and concentrate on getting better.
"Like I told him, time heals all a lot of wounds. Give it time and get yourself ready to come back stronger next season," Spurrier said. "You can't sit around feeling sorry for yourself. That doesn't help."
Although, it wouldn't be completely out of the question after what the Gamecocks went through this week.
South Carolina dismissed fifth-year senior quarterback Stephen Garcia for good for what his father said was a positive test for alcohol. Spurrier also drew outside criticism with his rant against a local sports columnist on the day Garcia was kicked off the team.
The Gamecocks offense continued to struggle at Mississippi State. Lattimore had just 39 yards and a 4-yard touchdown. It wasn't until Alshon Jeffery's leaping 4-yard pass from Garcia's replacement, Connor Shaw, with less than four minutes to go that South Carolina (6-1, 4-1 SEC) escaped with the victory.
Spurrier might have to call on his star wide receiver more frequently down the stretch. With Lattimore and Garcia gone, Jeffery's the last one left of South Carolina's "Big Three" on offense who had hoped to carry the Gamecocks back to the SEC title game as Eastern Division champions.
Jeffery said the game-winning play will give Shaw and the rest of the offense confidence they can accomplish big things in clutch situations, the way Lattimore and Garcia had done in years past.
"It was great to see Connor do that. It gives him a lot of confidence to come back in the fourth quarter to win the game," Jeffery said.
Maybe the best thing for South Carolina is its week off.
Spurrier said that might give more experienced runners dealing with injuries, like Kenny Miles and Eric Baker, the chance to heal and be a factor this season. Miles, the team's top rusher in 2009, has a wrist injury while Baker had a bad ankle. The Gamecocks had also lost speedy freshman runner Shon Carson to a season-ending injury last month at Georgia. Backup fullback Matt Coffee also tore a ligament and is out for the year.
Lattimore's scoring run was his 30th career TD, just three shy of South Carolina's career record.
Spurrier expects Lattimore to show the same determination in his rehabilitation as he's shown his two years with the Gamecocks.
"Marcus has always had a positive attitude. I'm sure he'll approach this as positively as he possibly can," Spurrier said.