As if negativity and frustration haven't followed the Tennessee Volunteers throughout the season, the year's darkest moment came on a play that didn't determine the game's outcome.
The worst part was when his helmet came off.
South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore immediately had dropped to the ground after taking a direct hit from Tennessee cornerback Eric Gordon's helmet on his kneecap. There was nothing malicious about the hit, nothing dirty. But everyone who saw Lattimore drop knew almost at once that his knee wasn't right. Everyone who saw one of ESPN's 200 replays know it was one of the most gruesome football injuries we've ever seen.
When Lattimore's helmet came off, you could see the pain and shock in his wide eyes. To me, that was the worst. Not seeing the leg turned the wrong way. Not his tears or those of his family members on the sideline -- although all that was something out of a nightmare. The worst for me was watching Lattimore watch his knee, and you know he was wondering and worrying about his incredible future ahead of him.
It still breaks my heart and brings tears to my eyes.
Lattimore is an incredible talent, an atypical college workhorse who was a can't-miss NFL talent and likely first-rounder. Even after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament last year, he'd come back and proven he really hadn't missed a beat.
Now this. Word is it's worse than serious. It's dreadful. Preliminary reports seemed worse, but the USCe team doctor said Sunday that there were no fractures and Lattimore only tore knee ligaments -- though it looked to be worse than just that. Since that's what we know at this point, we're going to reluctantly hope that's encouraging news and Lattimore can return. For what it's worth, Spurrier certainly was leaving that hope kindled.
"We're optimistic his football days are still ahead of him," Spurrier said. "There is a history of guys coming back from this."
We should just all continue praying for Lattimore and hoping this great player who by all accounts is also a great kid returns sooner rather than later and is full-speed. This morning in church, the issue came up about Lattimore and we wondered aloud if he had any insurance policy the way Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck did. The answer we came to was he probably didn't because A) He wasn't eligible to come out to the NFL yet and B) We didn't know what kind of premium he could get since he'd already severely injured his knee.
So, this is going to be on Lattimore to battle back yet again. And we're all cheering for him to do so. It was great to see a Vols team with many connections to Lattimore -- high school teammate Corey Miller on the team and Lattimore's lead recruiter and former position coach Jay Graham -- come out on the field and gather around him as they took him off the field.
One final side note -- don't forget Gordon in this, either. That's a massive burden to carry for a kid who did nothing wrong. With that sad and sobering intro, let's get on with the trending report:
- Zach Rogers. A career day for a maligned UT receiver was overshadowed by the loss, but it was still great to see a player who'd been plagued by drops and fan irritation be the go-to guy for a day. Rogers finished with 107 yards and three touchdowns. With most of South Carolina's focus on Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson, Tyler Bray found comfort in the solid senior.
- Fighting Back. All game long, Tennessee's offense fought. While UT's defense is the worst in my lifetime, Bray and the boys just kept on coming back on South Carolina and was in prime position to win the football game until Jadaveon Clowney stripped the football from Bray and -- of course -- South Carolina recovered.
- Tyler Bray's Maturation. It was still far from perfect. Bray missed several wide-open receivers that there was no excuse for missing. There was a shot of him on the sideline dancing with us down 14 in the second half that flew all over me. And then he was stripped of the football in a play that cost us the game -- a play that was simply characterized by one of the greatest players in college football in Clowney making a great play. But Bray was excellent, still. He responded to Dooley's criticism by going 27-of-43 for 368 yards four touchdowns and a final heave-and-hope interception. He hasn't become a winning quarterback yet, but he again flashed his talent.
- Tiny Richardson's Future Stardom. Such an incredible game of neutralizing Clowney is overshadowed by the one time Clowney really beat the sophomore badly and caused the game-deciding play. But Tiny said leading up to the showdown that he believed he could play with anybody, and he proved that on Satuday. Much like Ja'Wuan James' performance against Jarvis Jones earlier this year, Richardson made his mark by performing in the biggest game and proving that we're still squandering too much talent with losses.
- Herman Lathers' Heart. Nobody can question this kid. He wants to do well, and after so many injuries and battling so much else, he wants to be better than he is. Though he's atrocious in pass coverage -- one of the worst I've ever seen -- Lathers was terrific in all other situations Saturday. He finished with 15 tackles -- 13 solo -- two tackles for a loss, an interception and a sack. I really hope he gets a medical redshirt and gets to come back for another season.
- Sal Sunseri. I know that Tennessee is likely going to fire Derek Dooley and his entire coaching staff to take care of it in one fell swoop [though I really hope the next coach -- if there is one -- seriously looks at retaining Jay Graham and Sam Pittman] but Sunseri was a terrible, terrible hire. There has been rampant speculation that Dooley nixed hiring Randy Shannon at the 11th hour and went after Sunseri and his 3-4 scheme. The scheme may wind up being the right call, but no team struggled this much in installing it. Players are constantly and consistently out of position, proper personnel aren't in the right spots, and Sunseri is simply in over his head. Bottom line.
- The Winning Edge. The Vols don't have it. They have the players in positions to make plays and they have the talent to win games. But this is Reason No. 1 why Dooley and Co. must go. We invent ways to lose. We cannot finish the game. Immediately after my dad said, "We're in position to win this football game," Clowney shot around the edge, past Richardson -- who held him to no avail -- and swatted the ball from Bray's hands. South Carolina recovered. Then, we got the ball back with no timeouts [more on that in a second] and couldn't win.
- Officiating. Did UT have the game taken from it Saturday? No. But several calls certainly crushed opportunities. Tom Ritter and his crew are consistently brutal, and there is no reason he should have a job in this league. He also consistently kills the Vols. Early in the game, Ritter and crew called a horse-collar tackle on Willie Bohannon that kept a South Carolina scoring drive going. Then almost right afterward, there was a no-call on Connor Shaw intentional grounding to avoid a sack. South Carolina got away with holding on designed quarterback runs all day. Then, when UT actually had a timeout at the end of the game, the officials ruled Shaw stayed in bounds on his final scramble when he stepped out without question. It was not reviewed like everything inside 2 minutes is supposed to be, and UT had to burn its last timeout. Dooley should have insisted it be reviewed, but nevertheless, the officiating was atrocious.
- Guarding the Middle of the Field. Quarterbacks and tight ends have career days against the Tennessee Volunteers. We absolutely do not guard the middle of the field. If you want to personify how awful we are in pass coverage between the hash marks, look no further than Lathers and A.J. Johnson in coverage and Byron Moore as our [Lord help us...] last line of defense. It's been a horror show this year.
- Getting CP the Football. At this point we all know that he struggles running routes. So, hand him the football 12-15 times for goodness sake -- especially with Rajion Neal hurt. This has gotten ridiculous.