- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Todd Grantham justifiably received much of the credit when his Georgia defense led the Bulldogs' resurgence last season that resulted in the team's first SEC East title since 2005.
But among the few black marks on the third-year defensive coordinator's resume at Georgia is a complete inability to stop South Carolina's star tailback Marcus Lattimore -- particularly late in games when the Bulldogs needed a stop the most.
"He's a tremendous player. I've got a lot of respect for him," Grantham said of Lattimore, who rushed for 94 of his 176 yards against the Bulldogs last season in the fourth quarter. "He's a guy that runs behind his pads. He plays the game the way you should play it.
"He gets better as the game goes along. We played him well last year up until the fourth quarter and then he had a couple of big runs, so we've got to understand we've got to play for four quarters on him."
Mirroring what he had done against Georgia the year before, Lattimore helped South Carolina put away its 45-42 win in Athens last season by picking up a crucial first down when everyone in Sanford Stadium knew he would get the ball on the Gamecocks' final possession. It took three carries for Lattimore to finally move the chains, but once he busted loose for an 8-yard gain on third-and-3 with 1:16 to play, South Carolina was able to run out the clock without having to give the ball back to the Bulldogs.
Lattimore made runs of 36 and 24 yards in the fourth quarter, cementing his reputation for getting better as a game progresses and opposing defenses begin to tire. And his performances in two games against Georgia contribute directly to that reputation.
In South Carolina's 17-6 win against Georgia in 2010, Lattimore ran eight times for 56 yards on the Gamecocks' final drive, which exhausted seven minutes of clock and resulted in a field goal that made it a two-score game with 1:12 to play.
"A lot of it has to do with his ability to find it and break tackles and have enough endurance to be even more effective in the fourth quarter than the first quarter," Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said. "As everybody else is giving way a little bit, he's still going strong."
Lattimore was one of the nation's top recruits in 2010, but was still something of an unknown quantity when he took the field against Georgia as a freshman -- in just his second college game. In the Gamecocks' opener against Southern Miss that season, Lattimore ran 14 times for 54 yards and the Gamecocks breezed to a 41-13 victory.
But everyone in Williams-Brice Stadium understood that Lattimore was a legitimate star against the Bulldogs, starting from the first series of the game. The freshman rushed 10 times for 50 yards and a touchdown on that possession and finished the afternoon with 37 rushing attempts for 182 yards and two touchdowns.
"I remember I watched the first game that he played and I was like, 'OK, he's a big guy, he's a freshman.' And then he had the ball 37 times against us and just gashed us," Georgia senior linebacker Christian Robinson said. "Everybody was talking about that the whole season that he kind of made his name early, even though he lived up to it, off that one game. He's a great player and he's strong and you have to wrap up. And we didn't that game."
Grantham and each of his defensive charges emphasized this week that gang tackling is of the utmost importance this week against Lattimore, who appears to be returning to form after suffering a severe knee injury while blocking against Mississippi State in Week 7 of the 2011 season.
That was especially the case a week ago against Kentucky, when he had just five carries for 12 yards and South Carolina trailed 17-7 at halftime. But the Gamecocks began feeding the ball to their superstar after halftime and he rewarded them with 108 second-half yards and two fourth-quarter touchdowns as South Carolina pulled away for a 38-17 victory.
"I think we've just got to come out and pound on Lattimore as much as we can -- every time he touches the ball, make sure we get three or four hats on him," cornerback Sanders Commings said. "I think if we do that, he won't run the ball the way he did the past two years against us."
Lattimore matched his season high with 23 carries last week, which is far from the career-high 40 carries he notched against Florida in 2010 or the 37 he totaled last year against Navy and against Georgia as a freshman.
But the Bulldogs fully expect the ball to be in his hands in the fourth quarter, particularly if the outcome is still hanging in the balance. After his late-game performances against Georgia in his first two contests against the Bulldogs, it is only natural to expect another heavy dose of him running on Saturday night.
"I'm sure coming off the injury, they wanted to take their time and be wise," Richt said. "From what I've seen just from the first game to this past game, I think he's gaining confidence in himself and they're gaining confidence in him that he's well and back to 100 percent."