COLUMBIA, S.C. – Marcus Lattimore spoke to his South Carolina teammates from the heart on Friday night as they prepared to face Tennessee.
Don't take anything for granted, Lattimore urged the Gamecocks.
"Act like every play is your last play," defensive end Jadeveon Clowney said, recalling the junior tailback's words.
Now, those players hope Lattimore hasn't played his last game after a horrific knee injury that will likely end his season prematurely for a second straight year.
Coach Steve Spurrier gave few details on Lattimore's damaged right leg, which flopped to the turf like a rag doll's might after a hit in the second quarter of No. 17 South Carolina's 38-35 win over Tennessee on Saturday.
Spurrier said the injury appeared every bit as serious as the torn knee ligaments which caused Lattimore to miss the final six games last season. He required surgery and about six months of rehabilitation to make it back.
Lattimore was taken to the hospital for further evaluation.
"He's going to do wonderful things," the coach said, while acknowledging, "I don't know what field of life."
Connor Shaw threw for three touchdowns and a career-high 356 yards. He also ran for another as the Gamecocks (7-2, 5-2 Southeastern Conference) snapped a two-game losing streak. Lattimore had a 28-yard touchdown run, extending his school marks to 41 TDs overall and 38 rushing.
The Vols (3-5, 0-5) nearly rallied from a two-touchdown deficit in the final quarter. Tyler Bray drove Tennessee to the Gamecocks' 19 with 1:08 to go before defensive end Jadeveon Clowney forced a fumble to end the series. Tennessee forced a punt and got a final chance, but Victor Hampton intercepted Bray's long pass attempt to seal the win.
The Gamecocks rolled up 510 yards after managing only 368 combined the previous two weeks in losses at LSU and Florida. Tight end Justice Cunningham had six catches for 108 yards and receiver Bruce Ellington had six catches for 101 yards as South Carolina won its third straight over Tennessee for the first time ever in a series that began in 1903.
Bray passed for 368 yards and four touchdowns, three to Zach Rogers.
The Gamecocks hoped to get their offense back on track and Lattimore was a huge part of that plan. He had been slowed by a hip bruise sustained at LSU two weeks ago, limiting him to just three carries in a 44-11 loss at Florida last Saturday. But Spurrier said he was at 100 percent and ready to once again carry the load for South Carolina.
And Lattimore was doing just that, gaining 65 yards in the opening half, including a 28-yard burst for his 41st career touchdown at South Carolina. Everything stopped at Williams-Brice Stadium when Lattimore lay on the turf after a 2-yard pickup right before halftime.
Lattimore was wrapped up from behind by linebacker Herman Lathers as defensive back Eric Gordon came in at the knees. Lattimore's body whipped around, his right leg slamming against the ground.
Trainers immediately rushed out to South Carolina's star, holding him against the ground as he tried to lift up and see what was going on. Lattimore appeared to be sobbing in pain.
After several minutes, Tennessee players came out to wish Lattimore well. South Carolina's players, coaches and staff soon followed and the group surrounded Lattimore as trainers lifted him onto the cart. The crowd chanted Lattimore's name as the cart pulled away, Lattimore's head covered with a towel heading toward the locker room.
"I don't know that I've ever seen anything like that," Spurrier said.
Messages of support filled Twitter from the sports world, including U.S. women's soccer star Abby Wambach, LSU coach Les Miles and Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III.
Spurrier was not surprised, saying Lattimore was loved and admired by many because of his work ethic and attitude.
"As a person, there is none better that I've ever met," the coach said.
A season ago, the Gamecocks relied on veteran Kenny Miles and first-year player Brandon Wilds to make up for Lattimore's absence a year ago. Miles filled in for Lattimore in the second half against the Vols, but Wilds has not played this season because of injury.
Freshman Mike Davis has played sparingly in seven games and should also see more playing time without Lattimore.
South Carolina looked in control most of the half, scoring on three of its first four possessions. Shaw threw touchdown passes of 33 yards to Bruce Ellington and 26 yards to Rory Anderson before Lattimore's TD run.
Tennessee cut the lead to 21-14 on Bray's 37-yard scoring throw to Zach Rogers, the duo's second TD pass of the half. But Shaw ended a 10-play drive on a 1-yard touchdown run with 14 seconds left before the half to restore the Gamecocks' two-touchdown lead.
Bray and the Vols nearly pulled off the comeback down the stretch when Rogers hauled in a 22-yard pass in the end zone to bring Tennessee within a field goal. But Clowney's sack and Hampton's late pick saved things for South Carolina.
It's the third straight season Tennessee has opened 0-5 in the SEC.
"It's the same old song and dance on the SEC level," Dooley said. "We had a chance to win and they made a great play, got the ball out and turned it over. All you can is move on."
Spurrier hopes to do that, too, and hopes he can have Lattimore in his backfield as he has the past three seasons.
"Maybe he'll be back next year," Spurrier said. "Maybe it won't be quite as severe as it appeared on the field out there."