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October 17, 2011

Cloninger: Sun shining behind cloudy horizon



"Where do we go?"
------------- GUNS N' ROSES

One could almost see Steve Spurrier with that classic frustrated expression, with a heavy breath deflating his chest, even though the call was initiated from a stretch of Alabama highway and Spurrier was in his office in Columbia.

"Our worst fears were realized," he began, and there was really no need to listen to the rest. Anyone hoping for a miraculous happy ending to the tragedy that began on Saturday in Starkville immediately felt optimism head to the nether regions.

Marcus Lattimore, the gas in South Carolina's engine, is out for the season with a torn ligament in his left knee. It looked bad when it happened, as the Gamecocks were driving for the game-winning touchdown against Mississippi State, and it was much worse on Sunday.

As anybody who watched the Gamecocks play last year, it was night and day from when Lattimore was on the field. When he was there, even if he wasn't producing that many yards, USC's offense was fluid and had several options. When he wasn't there, the Gamecocks were sheep in the pasture when the shepherd has taken five.

Lattimore wasn't having a good day when he was injured, and he hadn't been nearly as productive as he was against Navy, when he rushed for 246 yards and ended the week as the country's leading rusher. But to see him on crutches, his left leg cocooned in a soft cast, his mother softly crying as she heard the news from team officials, who couldn't help but think of Bill Paxton in "Aliens" - "Game over, man! Game over!"

But while we're on the movie references, recall "Apollo 13," when someone says that the lost moon mission could be the worst disaster that NASA has ever faced. Ed Harris stares at the guy, and says, "On the contrary, gentlemen. I think this will be our finest hour."

The Gamecocks are still in good position to achieve what they have wanted to achieve ever since last season ended - a return trip to the SEC Championship Game. And they can do it without Lattimore, as long as two things happen.

One - Spurrier earns every cent of his paycheck by devising game plans to take advantage of what the Gamecocks have, not try to plug in players to play a system that Lattimore would have felt comfortable in.

Two, and most important - that the Gamecocks band together, realize that losing Lattimore is a blow, but refuse to use it as an excuse.

At least one, cornerback Cadarious Sanders, was already vocal about it on Sunday. In what has been an incredibly trying week - in a span of five days, two of the three biggest cogs of the Gamecocks' preseason offense were gone - Sanders was saying on Facebook to use it as motivation.

"We have faced too much (censored) this year for us not to be closer than any team in tha nation, pressure is off, we gon do our thang," Sanders wrote. "Just watch...to all my teammates, love you boys. lets get this. "sorry for the lango""

It's a bad hand for the Gamecocks to be dealt, because no team can exist solely by throwing the ball. Only one true scholarship tailback, freshman Brandon Wilds, is left to tote the ball, but the Gamecocks have Bruce Ellington, Damiere Byrd, Ace Sanders, Nick Jones and Connor Shaw to give them different elements of running the ball. They also have a passing game that is getting more and more consistent, by using short passes to draw in the defense, before sending a speed guy deep, a tight end over the middle or the usual throw-it-high-and-let-him-go-up route to Alshon Jeffery.

USC has a week off to rest its other ailing players before heading to Tennessee, a team which was beginning to find its offensive legs before quarterback Tyler Bray broke his thumb. The Arkansas game will be extremely difficult, but USC's defense continues to play better and better.

Then comes a game against Florida, at home, with the Gators going through their own quarterback troubles; and home games against The Citadel and Clemson, which have no effect on USC's SEC title dreams but would still be lovely to win. It all sets up very nicely, as long as the Gamecocks can beat Arkansas, or hope for hard-charging Georgia to lose a game (Florida and Auburn could be tricky).

This was supposed to be the greatest season that USC has ever had. The record shows that it still can be. Throughout the struggling play, the frustration, and an awful week where Stephen Garcia was sent packing and Lattimore couldn't stop in time to hurdle a diving tackler, the Gamecocks have still won.

USC is set to practice on Tuesday. If I'm Spurrier, I'm calling everyone together before hitting the field and saying, "Know what? Yeah, we're getting everything but the kitchen sink thrown at us, and we're still 6-1. There are five games left, and we can be 11-1. Let's go to work."

Nobody ever said that being great had to come easy. So the line is being drawn. On one side, a good season becomes a mid-level bowl game, hey, things happen and players got hurt, USC did what it could.

On the other, the Gamecocks' finest hour.

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