The 2011 season marked a significant milestone in Steve Spurrier's tenure as South Carolina coach, and maybe his 22 years as a college head coach.
For the first time in his seven years guiding the Gamecocks, USC gained more yardage rushing the football than passing AND ran the football a higher percentage of the time than throwing it.
Over the course of the 13 games, USC ran the ball 63.6 percent of the time, by far the highest percentage during Spurrier's tenure, and compiled 51.4 percent of its total yards on the ground.
Prior to last season, the highest run-to-pass percentage during Spurrier's time in Columbia had been 57.3-42.7 percent in 2010, but last season's figures easily surpassed that. Over the past two seasons, USC has run the ball 60.4 percent of the total plays.
The Gamecocks are also 20-7 in that span. Coincidence? Not really. In a conference dominated by defense (a key reason for the SEC's six straight national titles), the teams able to run the ball the best typically have the best records.
The top three rushing teams in the SEC last season were Alabama, LSU and USC. The three teams with the lowest per game rushing averages were Ole Miss, Kentucky and Tennessee. None qualified for a bowl.
While the 2010 and 2011 seasons were similar in some respects, they were also different. Even though Lattimore emerged as one of the top freshman players in the country two years ago by rushing for 1,197 yards (and becoming the first 1,000 yard rusher for the Gamecocks since Derek Watson in 2000), USC still gained just 39.3 percent of its total yardage on the ground.
In that regard, the 2010 season was emblematic of the Steve Spurrier Era. In his first five seasons as coach, USC's total rushing yardage in any single season didn't exceed 37 percent of the total yardage amount. In five of those six years, that figure fell below 35 percent.
Yet, Spurrier still sought to run the football during those seasons, calling a running play better than 46 percent of the time. Translation: the Gamecocks tried really hard (maybe stubbornly) but simply couldn't run the football very well.
The conference rankings bear out that reality: USC finished last in the SEC in rushing for three straight years (2007-2009). Consider this: Mike Davis led USC is rushing with 573 yards in 2008 when the Gamecocks averaged a miniscule 94.1 yards per game.
Three years later, USC had more than doubled that average to 192.1 yards per game even with Lattimore missing nearly half the season.
How much has the DNA of the USC offense truly changed since 2009? That season, USC gained a total of 1,576 rushing yards in 13 games. It eclipsed that total by the end of the eighth game in 2011.
In the final six games last season, USC had 1,112 rushing yards and eclipsed the 200-yard plateau four times.
Clearly, Spurrier's mindset - and philosophy - has changed as his tenure in Columbia approaches the decade mark. Is it the Lattimore Effect? No question. When you sign the top running back prospect in the country, you give him the ball and when he's been healthy, that's exactly what the Gamecocks have done.
In 20 career games, Lattimore has totaled 2,015 yards, an average of 100.8 yards per game. If Lattimore stays healthy, he's a virtual lock to become the fourth rusher in Gamecock history to surpass 3,000 career rushing yards, joining George Rogers (5,204), Brandon Bennett (3,055) and Harold Green (3,005) in that exclusive club.
"A lot of people say Marcus is the best running back in the country and I think he is too," Spurrier said Tuesday on ESPN Radio during his day-long trip to Bristol, Conn. "But even after he got hurt we won five of six (games). So, the other guys filled in nicely. Brandon Wilds came in and had three 100-yard games. The last two games, Kenny Miles played well. He was exceptional at the end of the year."
Spurrier feels that if anything positive grew from his injury last season, USC was able to develop depth at the running back position.
"We're glad Marcus is back," Spurrier said. "He's going right back to number one, obviously. We really believe his knee is going to be 100 percent. He's ready to go. But football is a team sport. Marcus is going to carry his load, but the other guys have to play, too. I think they'll be ready when called upon again this year."
In the final eight games last season after Connor Shaw assumed the full-time quarterback duties, USC averaged 44.9 rushing and 23.3 passing attempts per contest.
The number of passing attempts per game fell to 18.5 in the final six games (five wins) following Lattimore's injury. In fact, only twice in those half dozen games did USC attempt as many as 20 passes.
Thus, even after losing Lattimore for the year, USC continued to keep the ball on the ground. In a five-game stretch, it had 52 or more rushing attempts on three occasions (at Tennessee, Florida, Clemson).
"Connor Shaw came on and played very efficiently," Spurrier said. "Over the last four games of the season, he was one of the highest-rated passers in the country. But we threw 18 passes per game. We were pretty much a 40- to 45-run, 20-pass type team last year. We may be that way this year.
"If we can't throw it very well, we're not going to try to with Marcus Lattimore coming back full speed, plus a bunch of other guys. Whatever we need to do to try to win the games is what we have to do."
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