Instead, he was watching Chris Smelley’s eyes and reading Smelley’s mind.
“I knew (Jared) Cook was the go-to guy,” Jones said of South Carolina’s last-ditch attempt to tie the score in the game’s final minute. “I knew they were going to go to him. I read the quarterback’s eyes and just broke on the ball and was able to make the play.”
With memories of last year’s gut-wrenching defeat lingering, and the thoughts of his coaches reminding him all week that the secondary had yet to make an interception, Jones picked off Smelley’s pass at Georgia’s 3-yard line, the final exclamation point in a game that featured far more swings in momentum than points on the scoreboard.
“It was redemption,” Jones said. “We needed a big play, and I wanted to be the guy to win the game. I wanted to be the guy to make the big play.”
Jones’ interception sealed the win, but it was hardly the game’s only decisive moment.
Georgia had numerous chances to put South Carolina away, but continued to come up short. South Carolina was within inches of taking control, but the ball never bounced its way.
In other words, it was a typical Bulldogs-Gamecocks showdown.
For the sixth time in the past eight years, Georgia’s annual SEC opener against South Carolina was decided by seven points or fewer, so when the big plays needed to be made, defensive tackle Corvey Irvin said the Bulldogs were prepared.
When the Gamecocks drove the ball inside Georgia’s 5 with a chance to tie the game with less than four minutes to play, Irvin wasn’t surprised. He had watched the same situation unfold all week.
While coaches had reminded Jones of the importance of turnovers in the secondary, they also had spent the week showing the defensive line footage of goal-line stands past Bulldogs teams had made against South Carolina.
“We watched that all week,” Irvin said. “We watched it every day – ’02, ’03, ’04, ’05, ’06, when they stopped them on the goal line, and I believe that’s what won the game.”
Irvin’s defense added to the legacy. The defensive line stuffed Gamecocks running back Mike Davis on first down, then linebacker Rennie Curran hit Davis as he leaped a pile of defenders on second down, jarring the ball loose. Cornerback Asher Allen recovered it in the end zone for a touchback, preserving Georgia’s seven-point lead in what appeared to be South Carolina’s final shot at a win.
“The defense played so good down in the red zone,” Irvin said. “They did a hell of a job, and that’s going to be in next year’s highlights.”
Georgia’s offense, however, couldn’t make the turnover stand up, forcing the final showdown that ended with Jones’ pick.
After racking up more than 500 yards in each of their first two games, the Bulldogs barely totaled half that against South Carolina’s physical defense.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford completed 15-of-25 passes for 146 yards, but his big play wasn’t made with his arm.
Midway through the third quarter, Stafford faked a handoff to tailback Knowshon Moreno, who had 79 yards rushing in the game, but held on to the football and darted down the middle of the field for a 30-yard gain.
Moreno found the end zone on the next play, a 4-yard run that marked the Bulldogs’ first touchdown against South Carolina in nearly 125 minutes of play.
“That was the only time we really broke out against these guys,” Richt said. “Matthew was riding it in there real good, and when you stick it in Knowshon’s belly, that gets a lot of attention.”
Georgia had every opportunity to put the nail in South Carolina’s coffin early, but the offense missed one opportunity after another.
Tight end Tripp Chandler dropped two passes on third down that would have extended drives. Stafford missed open receivers downfield on several occasions. Wide receiver Kris Durham just missed hauling in a pass in the end zone. Richard Samuel was stopped just short of a touchdown on Georgia’s second scoring drive, but was stopped at the 1.
“We were shooting ourselves in the foot a couple times – penalties, dropped balls, me missing receivers, not blocking the right guys,” Stafford said. “We’ve got to get back on the drawing board.”
Much of the credit, however, had to go to South Carolina’s stingy defense.
The Gamecocks held Moreno to just 4 yards per carry – nearly half his average in the first two games. The unit sacked Stafford four times and kept him under constant pressure.
“That is a great defense,” center Chris Davis said. “They were fast and strong. Sometimes I felt like we were playing about 15 guys out there.”
Earlier in the week, Richt said he was expecting a bloodbath.
Expecting that atmosphere, however, had Georgia prepared for what was in store, and when Reshad Jones took a knee after hauling in the secondary’s first interception of the season with three seconds left in the game, the feeling was more relief than jubilation.
“I hate to expect these kind of games because they’re gut wrenching,” Richt said. “They go to the wire, and it’s really no fun for either team. I think I can say with all honesty that my gut has churned more in this series and on this field than any other time since I’ve been at Georgia.”