Saturday night, No. 9 Georgia was humbled at every turn -- but still undefeated. The Bulldogs held off rebuilding South Carolina and its first-year coach 17-15 in front of 92,746 very relieved Sanford Stadium fans.
“We got a ‘W,’” linebacker Tony Taylor said. “It was ugly, but I know the whole Bulldog Nation is glad we didn’t lose to Spurrier.”
The former Florida coach beat Georgia 52-17 in 1995, his only other trip to Athens. A loss Saturday would have been even worse than that. The Gamecocks (1-1, 0-1 SEC) were 18-point underdogs and had struggled against Central Florida in their last outing, but they didn’t take their last gasp against the Bulldogs (2-0, 1-0) until 42 seconds remained.
“We’re going home losers tonight, but I’m proud of our effort,” said Spurrier, who fell to 11-2 all-time against Georgia. “What can I say? There were a lot of ifs and buts. We had a chance. We didn’t get it done.”
The Gamecocks had to miss an extra point that would have tied the game, miss a 46-yard field goal that would have given them the lead, fail on a tying two-point conversion attempt and drop several potential interceptions to let the Bulldogs off the hook.
“We had some eyes from the sky looking down on us,” Georgia linebacker Danny Verdun Wheeler said, “but I feel like we still would have put the points on the board regardless.”
The offense, which had followed Shockley’s six touchdowns against Boise State a week ago, had to turn to the running game against the Gamecocks. Shockley was 8 of 17 with 112 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions.
Sophomore running back Thomas Brown stepped up in his place, rushing for a career-high 144 yards on 20 carries and scoring the decisive touchdown with 11:24 remaining in the game. The Bulldogs rushed for 238 yards overall, marking the first time they have gained more yards on the ground than through the air since last year’s Vanderbilt game.
“Overall, it was fairly sloppily played offensively, but there was some beauty in our ability to run the ball,” Coach Mark Richt said.
Georgia fans thought they had finally exorcised the Evil Genius’ demon early in the fourth quarter when Brown scored on a 5-yard touchdown run to put Georgia ahead 17-9.
However, Spurrier mustered his best drive of the game on the next possession as South Carolina went 65 yards on nine plays and converted a third-and-18 on the way to scoring on a 4-yard touchdown pass from Blake Mitchell to Sidney Rice. That score closed the gap to 17-15 with 6:52 remaining.
Mitchell looked for Rice again on the two-point conversion try that would have tied the score but threw wide left.
Spurrier’s offense got one more shot when it took over on its 22-yard line with 1:11 left in the game. Two incompletions and a Charles Johnson sack later, the Gamecocks faced fourth-and-19. Mitchell completed a pass to Kris Clark, who lateraled it back to Rice, but Paul Oliver knocked him out of bounds 5 yards short of a first down.
“We put the onus on the defense one more time and they made the plays again, thankfully,” Richt said. “Running game, field position, defense. It isn’t pretty sometimes.”
As Rice tumbled out of bounds, defensive coordinator Willie Martinez fell to his knees on the Georgia sideline and rested his forehead on the turf for several seconds. The Gamecocks gained 279 yards overall but had just 43 rushing yards, and Martinez credited his players’ attitudes with the outcome.
“I really liked it when I looked in their eyes,” he said. “They really wanted to go back out there and play.”
The Bulldogs will play Louisiana-Monroe next week in Sanford Stadium before taking their first off week of the season.
“We have to regroup for next week,” offensive lineman Max Jean-Gilles said. “We have a lot of work to do.”