Three and Out: South Carolina edges Georgia 38-35 in SEC East classic

Three and Out: South Carolina edges Georgia 38-35 in SEC East classic.
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COLUMBIA, S.C. -- With his back against the wall, Steve Spurrier did what Steve Spurrier does best. After spending most of the week talking up Georgia (while maintaining that a lot could change in a relatively short span), he came out and led his No. 24 Gamecocks past the No. 6 Bulldogs 38-35. South Carolina improves to 1-1 in SEC play and stays in the thick of the SEC East conversation.

The result came with plenty of ups and downs. Georgia kicker Marshall Morgan missed a pair of crucial field goals. South Carolina’s Mike Davis and Brandon Wilds delivered some clutch running. And there was the controversial ball spot following Dylan Thompson’s fourth-and-one keeper with 1:17 remaining.

All this game proved was that the SEC East is wide open, and that we should never ever ever count out Spurrier. Here are three thoughts from Columbia:

1. Let Todd Gurley do his thing

Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo catches his share of criticism at times, some of it fair and some not. A few of his decisions in this game, however, were head-scratchers. Bulldogs quarterback Hutson Mason hasn’t shown any evidence to date that he is capable of carrying the attack with his arm, and Georgia has a deeper stable of running backs than any other program in the nation.

Still, star tailback Todd Gurley had just eight carries for 44 yards in the first half. The Bulldogs had just 14 for 71. Mason went 9-of-12 for 132 passing yards, but that left the Bulldogs in a 24-13 hole at the break.

Gurley finished with 131 yards and a touchdown, a two-yard scamper with 9:23 to play in the third quarter that cut South Carolina’s lead to 24-20. Yet on the next possession, after the Gamecocks had extended their advantage to 11, Bobo went away from the ground game. He called for an empty-backfield set on a key third-and-two. Mason’s pass fell incomplete and the Dawgs were forced to punt.

Even more questionable was Bobo’s decision-making in the final few minutes. Georgia had the ball on South Carolina’s four-yard line following Damian Swann’s late interception with a chance to take the lead. Mason was flagged for intentional grounding on first down, and the series ended with a Morgan missed field goal.

The lesson here is simple: When a team has the best running back in college football, it should use him.

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2. South Carolina’s defense deserves credit

Over the first two weeks of the season, the Gamecocks’ defense had been torn apart by everyone from pundits to commentators to Spurrier himself. However, facing an opponent like Georgia (which hung 45 points in a win over Clemson in Week 1), coordinator Lorenzo Ward’s unit stepped up. It prevented the Bulldogs from scoring on a possession in which they took over at the four-yard line.

The Gamecocks stopped the Dawgs from converting on a number of third downs, something that was rare in previous clashes with Texas A&M (a 52-28 loss) or East Carolina (a 33-23 win). This young group makes mistakes, but it has potential, too.

Georgia’s defense, on the other hand, had trouble in pass coverage all night. Thompson went 21-of-30 for 271 yards with three touchdowns. The Bulldogs came close to stuffing Thompson on fourth-and-one in the final seconds, but he extended just past the first-down marker to seal the outcome (or so it appeared).

3. The SEC East is up for grabs

For those who thought the SEC East race would be all neat and tidy three weeks into the season, think again. These types of results helped Missouri sneak up on everyone last fall, and something similar could end up happening in 2014.

The East is like an old, wooden coaster with a faulty lap bar in every other row. It’s frightening and exhilarating, and not at all safe. Hold on tight.