Vanderbilt dodged a bullet last year when it didn’t have to face Marcus Lattimore.
They won't be so fortunate this time around.
South Carolina’s bruising sophomore running back is healthy and scorching defenses. After three games, the 6-foot, 232-pounder leads the nation in rushing with 534 yards. The 2010 SEC Freshman of the Year has scored seven touchdowns and averages 180 yards per game heading into Saturday’s 6 p.m. matchup (ESPN2) against Vanderbilt in Columbia, S.C.
A year ago, he carried the ball 249 times for 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns and missed just one game – a 21-7 victory at Vanderbilt – due to an injury.
“He is a horse,” Commodores cornerback Trey Wilson said on Monday. “Getting 30 to 40 touches a game they are definitely going to get him involved in the game plan. It is our job to slow that down.”
Of course, that is easier said than done.
The Commodores rank fourth in the SEC in rush defense, allowing just 85.7 yards a game and one touchdown. But Vanderbilt coach James Franklin emphasized pursuing the football – something he said the defensive unit hasn’t done well enough yet to earn a winning grade from the coaches. He also thinks the tackling could be much better.
Both areas will be crucial if Vanderbilt (3-0, 1-0 SEC) hopes to contain Lattimore.
“I don’t know if you do [slow him down],” Franklin said. “I think Marcus Lattimore is going to play well. They are going to give him the ball enough that he is going to have some statistics.”
Against Navy on Saturday that is exactly what No. 12 South Carolina did, rushing 44 times – with 37 handoffs going to Lattimore for a career-high 246 yards and three touchdowns.
It was the third time in his young career that he has had 37 or more carries. He rushed 40 times last year against Florida.
So the Gamecocks (3-0, 1-0) have no problem riding Lattimore.
They might be more inclined to do so on Saturday against a Vanderbilt secondary that is gaining a reputation for being stingy. The Commodores lead the country with 10 interceptions.
Though the inconsistency of fifth-year senior quarterback Stephen Garcia has been well documented, he still ranks third all-time in South Carolina history in passing yards, completions and touchdowns. Plus, he has one of the best receivers in the country in 6-foot-4, 229-pound Alshon Jeffery. The All-American had 88 receptions for 1,517 yards in 2010.
“I’m not going to say [South Carolina’s passing game] is going to be minimized,” Wilson said. “With a running back like that, they’ll pound him and pound him and try to lull you to asleep, get your eyes in the backfield and throw one up top and try to take advantage of it. So we just got to go out there and do our job, every play six seconds at a time.”
• Weekly honors: Wilson and Vanderbilt sophomore center Wesley Johnson were both honored by the SEC on Monday. Fresh from a two-interception performance, Wilson was named the league’s defensive player of the week. The junior from Shreveport, La., leads the SEC with three interceptions. He has also returned two picks for touchdowns, becoming the first Vanderbilt player to achieve the feat since Jay Chesley in 1974.
Johnson was named the offensive lineman of the week. The Montgomery Bell Academy grad is in his first year at center after spending most of last year at left tackle. Against Ole Miss, he helped the line open holes for 281 rushing yards. It was the team’s highest total in an SEC game since 1994.
• Tate moves up: After four catches for 26 yards on Saturday, Wesley Tate has moved to first team on the wide receiver depth chart.
The sophomore out of nearby Pope John Paul II is expected to start against South Carolina. He’ll line up with Jonathan Krause and either Jordan Matthews or Chris Boyd.
Tate, who is listed at 6-foot-1 and 224 pounds, moved from running back during fall preseason camp. He has five catches for 28 yards, along with one rush for a 23-yard touchdown.
“I have been impressed with him,” Franklin said. “I think is his strength as a running back was playing in space as well any way. So we are emphasizing that. I think the biggest thing for him is it is kind of like a basketball player learning to play fast without the ball. The first couple weeks he struggled with that a little bit. But he is coming on right now. We just want to keep building on that.”
Junior John Cole did not play against Ole Miss due to a lower left leg injury. Franklin said he will not play against South Carolina but hopes “to be getting him back pretty soon.”
Cole has four catches for 59 yards and was also the team’s punt returner. Krause will handle those duties for the second straight week.
• Skid snapped: With the win against Ole Miss, Vanderbilt ended a six-game SEC losing streak.
Prior to last weekend, the Commodores were 1-16 against league opponents dating back to the 2008 season. That was also the last time Vanderbilt won consecutive league games.