South Carolina’s 24-21 victory over Navy on Saturday reminded me of the line Sports Illustrated used after eventual national champion Nebraska went on the road to face a tough Kansas State while starting a third-string quarterback in 1994. The Huskers won, 17-6, thanks to a no-frills offense completely centered around running back Lawrence Phillips.
“It was like watching a splendid, sleek animal escape the jaws of a trap by gnawing off its own leg,” wrote John Garrity.
Gamecocks Coach Steve Spurrier has the reputation of liking to throw the football a lot. On Saturday, he played it simple and gave the ball to sophomore running back Marcus Lattimore: Lattimore finished with 37 carries for 246 yards.
Overall, South Carolina ran the ball 44 times. In the second half, USC ran the ball 28 times and threw it 10.
Give Spurrier credit for embracing the simple yet effective approach. It’s something that Navy opposing coaches have not always done, from then-Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt and offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh out-thinking themselves in overtime in 2007 to then-Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis eschewing the effective for mythical style points every Saturday.
Spurrier’s evolution as a coach was on full display on Saturday. Based on research that includes Spurrier’s final five seasons at Florida and first six-plus seasons at South Carolina, Saturday’s rushing numbers were historic.
Only once in his final five seasons at Florida did Spurrier’s teams run the ball more than 44 times: in its bowl game against Penn State in 1997, the Gators had 59 rushes, according to Phil Steele’s yearbook.
Meantime, at South Carolina pre-Lattimore, only twice did it run the ball more than 44 times — against Alabama Birmingham in ’08 and Clemson in ’09. (South Carolina ran the ball 44 times against Tennessee in ’08.)
Since Lattimore arrived, however, the Gamecocks have rushed the ball more than 44 times in a game four times, including Saturday.
Incredibly, Spurrier’s record in all the games mentioned above is 8-0.
I couldn’t find game-by-game stats for Florida in 1996 — odd, since it won the national title under Spurrier that year. But in 1995, Florida’s high number of rushes in a game was 40, against Florida State. Also a win.
On Saturday, Georgia Tech’s option offense ran for more than 600 yards against Kansas; Army used the wishbone in its 21-14 victory over Northwestern (yes, I did notice!); and Navy’s option offense kept it in the game until the final minutes against the then-10th ranked Gamecocks.
It was a good day for teams that run the football.