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September 8, 2011

Lattimore churns out the tough yards



Last year's victory over Georgia produced a memorable performance by then-freshman running back Marcus Lattimore in his first SEC game.

When the final gun sounded, Lattimore had trampled the Bulldogs' defense for 182 yards on 37 carries, a Herculean performance by any measure.

But here's another statistic relating to Lattimore's brilliant afternoon. Twenty-one of his 37 rushing attempts (56.8 percent) gained 3 yards or less, 28 carries (75.7 percent) produced 6 yards or less.

In other words, while Lattimore had several dazzling long runs (eight went for 10-plus yards), he spent the majority of his afternoon running between the tackles and cranking out the tough yards, and keeping the chains moving (USC had 23 first downs).

He was the biggest reason USC was able to piece together three drives of 11 plays or more that consumed almost 20 minutes of the clock and kept the Georgia offense off the field. USC dominated time of possession by controlling the ball for 35:15.

By the end of the game, except for possibly Steve Spurrier, no one inside Williams-Brice Stadium understood Lattimore's talents better than Georgia coach Mark Richt.

"He can run through tackles," Richt said. "Maybe not necessarily completely break a tackle, but if you finish forward for two or three yards after contact, the guy might get you on the ground, but that's still pretty good, especially if that contact happens past the line of scrimmage. Those one- or two-yard runs become three-, four- and five-yard runs, and that's huge. That's kind of what he did to us all game last year."

USC running backs coach Jay Graham appreciates Lattimore's rare ability to churn out hard-to-get yards when sometimes little running room exists. But the sophomore has already mastered the ability to keep his legs moving and falling forward for an additional yard or two.

"It's important. Always try to fall forward and look for the small seams in the defense," Graham said Wednesday after USC's two-hour, 30-minute workout at The Proving Grounds. "That's the thing he does and what he needs to continue to do well. It's a major strength that he has. He has the ability to read and see those small little seams, that's the key thing to what he does. Hopefully, he can continue to do that."

Graham saw signs of Lattimore's acumen in the second half of last week's 56-37 victory over East Carolina, when he shook off a sluggish opening 30 minutes (he fumbled once) to produce 72 yards on 13 carries.

"When you're getting a lot of carries you should start to see things a little bit better," Graham said. "Most backs are like that. Being a big back, he can take the pounding for the entire game. Right after (the fumble) happened, we knew exactly what it was. It was pad leverage and things like that. It's not necessarily, hold onto the ball tighter. We talked about that in the film room. We need to continue to have great pad leverage and make smart decisions."

Lattimore doesn't break off many 50- or 60-yard runs, but he is exceptional at turning what should be 1- and 2- yard runs into 3- or 4-yard gains. Those few yards are usually the difference between making a first down or not, and over the course of a game that extra yardage adds up, and gradually wears an opponent down.

"As a line coach, I like those four-yard runs," USC offensive line coach Shawn Elliott said on Wednesday. "Those are good yards, those are tough yards. I am pleased anytime he goes forward, he very seldom goes backwards. But you have to value those things. Everybody expects him to go break a 20-yard run every time he touches the ball. They're kidding themselves. It has to be a well-executed run and a well-executed block. Those four- or five-yard runs, I will take them every day of the week and we will win a lot of games with them."

The tone for last year's win over Georgia was set early, when USC took the opening kickoff and drove 79 yards in 16 plays for a touchdown, draining 8:02 off the clock. Lattimore carried 10 times for 50 yards during the possession, cranking out three runs of 10 or more yards, including a critical 16-yard scamper on third-and-12 from the USC 19-yard-line on the third snap of the game.

"At times we blocked well, at times he ran great and at times they may have been out of position, so it was a combination of sorts that enabled us to run the football," Elliott said. "He broke a lot of tackles and he ran determined. When you run like he ran last year, he is going to get those yards."

The exclamation point came on USC's final scoring drive, when the Gamecocks were as much interested in chewing up the clock as they were scoring points. Lattimore carried the ball seven straight times, securing three first downs in the process, en route to a short field goal from Spencer Lanning.

That closing drive showcased Lattimore's off-the-charts skill set.

"I coach a lot of guys about pad leverage and keeping your shoulder square," Graham said. "He does it very well. He breaks a lot of tackles. He understands what we're doing in the offense and what his blocking assignment. A lot of that contributes to his success."

When the decisive 11-play, 57-yard drive started, 8:19 was left in the game. By the time Georgia got the ball back, just 1:12 remained.

In last year's win, all 81,000 fans watching inside the stadium and the players on both sidelines knew what USC was going to do offensively - hand the ball to Lattimore. And he was still able to approach 200 yards. When that happens, it's something special.

But Elliott delivered a stern message on Wednesday - this is a new year and USC needs to prove itself all over again.

"Anytime you can run the football and everybody in the stadium knows you're going to run the football, you gain confidence in that," Elliott said. "It was no different at Florida when everybody knew we were going to try to run the football. We took advantage of that and basically did what we wanted to do. But this is a totally different year. We have to go out and establish ourselves and we'll see if we can run the football. Maybe we can, maybe we can't.

"We're going to find out Saturday at 4:30."

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