South Carolina's Third-Down Secret Was Pretty Well-Known // SEC 2011

Whenever a team does something like win a division its never won, there are going to be seemingly mysterious changes in certain stats that aren't that mysterious at all once you drill down into the numbers. For South Carolina in 2010, one of those seemingly mysterious statistical changes was third-down conversions.

After all,

South Carolina Rushing Offense, 2009

ATT YDS AVG CONV CONV %
3rd Down
75 224 2.99 27 36.0
3rd Down, 1-3 To Go
31 119 3.84 19 61.3
3rd Down, 4-6 To Go
17 90 5.29 7 41.2
3rd Down, 7+ To Go
27 15 0.56 1 3.7
South Carolina Rushing Offense, 2010

ATT YDS AVG CONV CONV %
3rd Down
80 218 2.73 38 47.5
3rd Down, 1-3 To Go
42 150 3.57 29 69.0
3rd Down, 4-6 To Go
12 28 2.33 3 25.0
3rd Down, 7+ To Go
26 40 1.54 6 23.1
Source: cfbstats.co
the Gamecocks jumped from an abysmal ninth in the SEC in third-down conversions in 2009 to a stellar second in third-down conversions last year. And continuing that success on some level will be key to the Gamecocks repeating as SEC East champions in 2011.

But the reasons for the change aren't as complicated as they might look. And the No. 1 reason is the once-in-a-generation player that popped up as a freshman running back last year: Marcus Lattimore. Quite simply, he rejuvenated what had become a dormant South Carolina running attack.

When Lattimore began playing at South Carolina, the Gamecocks hadn't had a 1,000-yard rusher since Derek Watson in 2000. The last runner to even breach 900 yards had been Cory Boyd in 2007.

Lattimore changed all that when he smashed his way through opponents' front sevens for 1,197 yards, the largest total since some guy named George Rogers carried the rock for South Carolina. By virtue of his first season, Lattimore was 29th in career rushing yardage in South Carolina history; looking forward to this year, Lattimore could plausibly be in the Top 25 by the end of South Carolina's Sept. 3 game against East Carolina.

And that difference had a profound impact on third down. South Carolina's third-down conversion rate on running plays leapt 11.5 points between 2009 and last year. It was up nearly 7.3 points in the category that's most important for the rushing game -- converting short third downs into first downs. The average yardage was down slightly on those measures, but the average yardage is relatively unimportant in those cases. The goal, after all, is to get the first down and continue down the field. Anything after that is cosmetic.

But Lattimore didn't turn South Carolina's running game around on his own. Shawn Elliott took over as offensive line coach and running game coordinator before the 2010 season, with fairly obvious results. Elliott's main change was to implement more of a zone blocking scheme. Combined with the emergence of Lattimore, it finally got a long-stagnant running game going again. Steve Spurrier was publicly angry with former offensive line coach Eric Wolford for bolting after the 2009 season to take the head coaching job at Youngstown State; in retrospect, it might have been the best thing that happened to the Gamecocks.

The question, of course, is whether South Carolina can do it again. With Elliott at the helm and Lattimore running the football, you have to like the Gamecocks' chances.

But there are a few obvious chinks in the armor. Lattimore was knocked out of key football games twice last season -- once in the loss to Kentucky and once in the implosion against Florida State in the Game Formerly Known as the Peach Bowl. Both of those were losses, while the other game that Lattimore missed was the uninspiring and utterly confusing win against Vanderbilt, a team that kept things close despite being outgained by 234 yards and holding just a +1 edge in turnover margin.

Elliott might have changed things in Columbia, but Lattimore was the key. The rushing attack's improvement hinged on him, and the 2011 season might do the same.

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