COLUMBIA — Two stories came out of South Carolinas 38-35 SEC victory Saturday against Tennessee at Williams-Brice Stadium.
The 17th-ranked Gamecocks (7-2, 5-2) broke a season-souring, two-game losing streak, beating the Volunteers (3-5, 0-5) in a wide-open contest that ultimately was decided by a clutch defensive play.
But, more significantly, South Carolina lost star junior tailback Marcus Lattimore during the second quarter to what appeared to be a severe injury to his right knee.
School officials said Lattimore a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate who is considered one of the countrys top running backs will be out indefinitely and looked at again by doctors this week.
But from the look of the hit he took from Volunteers defensive back Eric Gordon, Lattimores football career once so promising when he came out of Duncan (S.C.) Byrnes High three years ago could be in jeopardy. It would be the second major injury he has sustained at South Carolina: he missed five games last season with a left knee injury.
Lattimore had started Saturdays game impressively, rushing for 65 yards and scoring on a 28-yard run. Then, on a routine-looking run late in the second quarter, he picked up 2 yards before he was hit by linebacker Herman Lathers and Gordon. Lattimores cleats stuck in the turf and his knee bent in an awkward, unnatural position from Gordons contact.
First looking bewildered and almost in shock, Lattimore lay on the field as team trainers gathered around him. The crowd of 80,250 fell silent.
I saw the look in his eyes when he was on the ground, teammate Ace Sanders said. He was really heartbroken.
There was no doubt Lattimores injury was serious. As the trainers tended to him, all of Lattimores teammates and most of the Volunteers gathered around him.
Everybody has a lot of respect for Marcus and what he has done, Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. Nobody likes to see a player get hurt. So I think when (my players) saw the severity of it and went out there, it just shows the respect that everybody has for each other as athletes. Nobody wants to see that happen.
Then Lattimore was carted off the field, his head covered in a towel.
South Carolina was leading 21-14 at the time, in a game it needed after its season had gone bad from consecutive losses against then-No. 9 Louisiana State and No. 3 Florida.
With Lattimore out, the Gamecocks offense didnt slow much. Nor did the Volunteers.
The teams continued to trade touchdowns throughout the rest of the game. South Carolinas Connor Shaw threw for a career-high 356 yards and three touchdowns. Kenny Miles ran for 34 yards in Lattimores place. Bruce Ellington caught six passes for 101 yards and a touchdown and tight ends Justice Cunningham (six catches, one touchdown) and Rory Anderson (three catches) also contributed in big ways.
But it was a play by the defense most notably sophomore end Jadeveon Clowney, a product of Rock Hills South Pointe High that decided it.
After Tennessee had cut South Carolinas lead to 38-35, the Volunteers were driving for a potential tying field goal or go-ahead touchdown. Tyler Bray, who finished with 368 yards passing, four touchdowns and had been sacked just three times all season, was continuing to pick apart the Gamecocks.
With the clock running toward the one-minute mark, Tennessee had driven to the Gamecocks 19. As Bray went back to pass, he was sacked by Clowney, forcing a fumble that was recovered by linebacker Shaq Wilson.
That didnt completely seal the outcome. After the Gamecocks didnt move the ball, Tennessee got it back with 36 seconds left. But defensive back Victor Hampton intercepted a last-ditch pass by Bray and that ended it.
On Friday night, after the Gamecocks watched a movie and had finished their pregame preparations, Lattimore addressed the team. His message: Play hard and treat every play as it might be your last.
Lattimores words might have been prophetic for him.
And then to see Marcus out there, that might have been his last snap, Sanders said. I got choked up. Why does this have to happen to Marcus again?