South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said his 12th-ranked Gamecocks are refreshed and ready to finish the season strong after a much-needed week off.
South Carolina (7-2, 5-2 Southeastern Conference) had climbed to third in the Top 25 and was in the thick of the national title chase a month ago. Then came defeats at LSU and Florida. And the Gamecocks managed to end that losing streak against Tennessee two weeks ago, it came at a terrible price — the loss of star tailback Marcus Lattimore for the season with a gruesome knee injury.
"I think our team and players enjoyed the week off," Spurrier said Tuesday. "I think we needed it."
The down time gave banged up players like defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles and running back Brandon Wilds the chance to heal. It also allowed the team to deal with the devastating news of Lattimore's absence.
"The bye week gave us the time to get everything right," said tight end Justice Cunningham, like Lattimore a Gamecock captain. "Me personally, I was trying to let everybody know what we've been talking about all year in the weight room, we've got to finish."
That starts Saturday when the Gamecocks close the SEC season against up-and-down Arkansas (4-5, 2-3). The Razorbacks opened the year 1-5 after an offseason of upheaval with former coach Bobby Petrino at the center of it. But they've won three of their past four games and quarterback Tyler Wilson leads the league in passing yards per game.
South Carolina's pass defense was non-existent in its last game as Tennessee's Tyler Bray threw for 368 yards and four touchdowns.
Gamecocks safety DeVonte Holloman said the team addressed that performance during the time off, too. The defense has spent more time in the film room and paid more attention to technique since the last game, Holloman said, adding the fresh legs should also help.
"Having nine games back to back to back wore us down a little bit," he said.
Most eyes at Williams-Brice Stadium will be on the Gamecocks backfield where fifth-year senior Kenny Miles will start for Lattimore.
He was among the players who attended a rally on Lattimore's 21st birthday on Oct. 29 to show their appreciation and support for the tailback.
Miles was South Carolina's leading rusher in 2009 before Lattimore arrived on campus and has been a backup ever since. He took part in senior day festivities last year as he considered finishing his career somewhere else, yet chose to return and end things where he began.
He said is ready to carry the load again.
"I'm just going to go out there and make sure the offense keeps rolling and not miss a beat," he said.
There'll be a place for Lattimore this weekend, too.
Spurrier said Lattimore had successful surgery on his right knee last Friday and is now recuperating. It could take more than a year for Lattimore, who's told Spurrier he'd return to football, to make it back on the field.
Spurrier said Lattimore will attend the Arkansas game and have his name unveiled on the inside of the stadium as South Carolina's all-time leader with 41 touchdowns, including 38 rushing TDs.
"So I think our fans need to know that Marcus will be here and I'm sure he'll get an ovation maybe like there's never been one at Williams-Brice," Spurrier said.
The coach was concerned with a few injury situations. Quarterback Connor Shaw probably wouldn't have been able to play if the Gamecocks had a game last week because of sprained foot.
Shaw stood in the pocket at Monday's practice, but could not run well, Spurrier said.
"Hopefully, by the middle of this week, he'll be full go," the coach said.
Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney will likely need surgery in the offseason to correct a foot injury that's bothered him for weeks, Spurrier said. The condition isn't painful, but Clowney hasn't only worked about 50 percent of the time at practice, the coach said.
South Carolina has struggled with Arkansas in recent years, losing three in a row and five of the past six games. Razorbacks coach John L. Smith says that past success is a big part of the game plan this week.
Smith wants his players to understand "traditionally we play hard and play well against these guys," he said.
Spurrier's calling on the past a bit, too. The Gamecocks have won 10 straight at home and are hoping to finish with six SEC wins for the second consecutive year, something the program's never done before. Should the Gamecocks win out — they face FCS opponent Wofford and No. 10 Clemson after Arkansas — there's a chance at an at-large berth in the BCS.
"I think our guys realize that we've lost to two top-10 teams at their place," Spurrier said. "So if we can finish strong, we'll see where it leads us."