COLUMBIA, S.C. -- It was foolish for anyone to think that Georgia could just roll right through the SEC East. That’s not how the SEC East works. The SEC East is a Candy Land board from hell, where every team gets stuck in the Molasses Swamp.
For two weeks South Carolina had heard about how poorly it was playing. For two weeks Georgia had heard about how great it was. Something had to give. On Saturday, after a lengthy weather delay, it did. The No. 24 Gamecocks beat the No. 6 Bulldogs 38-35, and now both teams have a loss in conference play.
“All you hear about all week about Georgia was how great they are,” Gamecocks quarterback Dylan Thompson said. “I just kind of got tired of it. We wanted to come out today and show what we had.”
Still, for as much as this game was about South Carolina's triumph, it was equally about Georgia’s missed chances. Head coach Mark Richt and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo made some choices that may have cost their team.
Bulldogs cornerback Damian Swann intercepted Thompson with 5:24 remaining in the fourth quarter and South Carolina leading by three. An illegal block penalty advanced the ball to the Gamecocks’ four-yard line, giving the Dawgs a golden opportunity to go ahead. Georgia had the best player on the field in running back Todd Gurley, who had rushed for 128 yards to that point. Yet instead of feeding the Heisman Trophy candidate, quarterback Hutson Mason dropped back to pass and was flagged for intentional grounding. A few plays later, kicker Marshall Morgan missed a 28-yard field goal attempt that would have evened the score.
“I thought they would try to maybe get the ball to Gurley,” South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said after the game. “And they didn’t.”
Georgia nearly got the ball back when the Gamecocks attempted a fourth-and-one quarterback keeper in the waning moments. But Thompson extended just past the first-down marker -- or so it seemed -- and South Carolina escaped with the win. Steve Spurrier celebrated, while Richt was left to ponder what went wrong.
“If I had to do it again I would’ve hammered it,” Richt said of his decision to pass on the Dawgs’ first-and-goal chance.
Gurley made something out of nothing on multiple occasions. It happened when a defender grabbed him the backfield before Gurley spun free for a seven-yard gain in the first quarter. It happened when he reversed fields and picked up 40 yards in the third. It happened when he ran for 17 yards on third-and-16, keeping a drive alive that resulted in a Bulldogs touchdown that cut the deficit to 31-28.
The old joke about Michael Jordan was that the only person who could stop him was his coach. A similar situation may be unfolding in Georgia. Clemson’s well-respected front seven couldn’t stop Gurley in Week 1 -- he compiled a school-record 293 all-purpose yards in a 45-21 win -- and a Gamecocks’ defense that still has a lot of growing up to do couldn’t, either.
“[With] one guy it’s hard to tackle Mr. Gurley,” Ward said. “I’ll call him mister because he’s a really good football player. We tried to do some different things and load the box and gang tackle him, and for the most part we did that. But you look and he still got 131 yards rushing.”
Georgia had a shot to put away South Carolina in the SEC East race. It would have been tough for the Gamecocks to bounce back from a 0-2 start in league play. Instead, Spurrier’s boys have a punching chance in a wide-open division.
Thompson can exploit an open window. Mike Davis can provide clutch power running. (After the game he joked that he might need to take his offensive line to Waffle House.) The Gamecocks made their share of mistakes, but they’re better than many analysts gave them credit for entering Saturday’s showdown.
“We were just happy to win the ball game,” Spurrier said. “Hopefully we can start becoming a good-looking team, but we’re not a good-looking team yet. The way we give up those third downs really hurts us defensively.”
The good news for Georgia? The last two seasons in which the Bulldogs lost to South Carolina they went on to win the SEC East. But they won’t do that without feeding Gurley and fellow backs Nick Chubb, Keith Marshall and Sony Michel.
As for South Carolina, it’s only one win, but it’s a big one.
“Some wins are better than others,” Spurrier said. “I think this one was better than most others.”