Georgia outlasts South Carolina to keep lofty national hopes alive
ATHENS, Ga. -- Though his team has played just two games this season, Georgia tight end Arthur Lynch is fully embracing next week's bye.
"I'm not even going to watch football," said the native of Dartmouth, Mass., "unless it's the Patriots."
The 11th-ranked Bulldogs have earned their week off after opening the year with consecutive back-and-forth shootouts against top-10 opponents. Before No. 5 Stanford even kicked off its first game this fall, Georgia was staring down the possibility of its 2013 season coming to an unofficial end. A week after the Dawgs fell 38-35 at No. 8 Clemson, they found themselves tied 24-24 at halftime against sixth-ranked South Carolina. This game was vitally important; the loser would find itself at the bottom of a deep hole in the SEC East standings.
"You hate so early into the season to feel the pressure of all your goals on the line," Georgia coach Mark Richt said afterward. "It's Week 2."
Still, those were the stakes for the Bulldogs. And so, after they racked up 536 yards on Jadeveon Clowney and South Carolina's defense, limited the Gamecocks to six points in the second half and held the ball for the game's final 8:28, Dawgs players celebrated their 41-30 victory like they'd just won the SEC. Quarterback Aaron Murray sprinted to Georgia's famed sideline hedges for a mini-victory lap. Nearly the entire team convened in front of a raucous student section, where, atop a throng of bodies, one could see a fan hoisting a Clowney cut-out -- with an actual clown face superimposed inside the helmet.
"It's a lot of stress, a lot of excitement and a lot of emotion in playing two top-10 teams to start the season," said Lynch, a senior who caught a touchdown on the Bulldogs' opening series. "I think we're all ready for a break."
It's already been an eventful two weeks in the SEC, most notably for the three teams -- Florida, Georgia and South Carolina -- widely presumed to be the frontrunners in the East division. Each already has one loss, with the Bulldogs' (to Clemson) and the Gators' (to Miami) falling to teams from the purportedly inferior ACC. Florida coach Will Muschamp is already taking heat for his team's bumbling offense. Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier is already taking thinly veiled shots at his own defense.
If the SEC is going to produce an eighth straight national champion, one of two things needs to happen. Either that team is going to have to come from the West, or one of the aforementioned one-loss squads is likely going to have to run the table. Yet if fans learned anything these past two weeks, it's that the Dawgs have the offensive fortitude to beat just about anyone.
Murray, who had taken so much flak for his big-game record (1-6 vs. top-10 teams and 1-9 vs. top-15 teams coming into Saturday), turned in the finest performance of his career in his first win over South Carolina. The fifth-year senior completed 17-of-23 passes for 309 yards and four touchdowns, with no interceptions. Murray set the tone for the day on Georgia's opening drive. Despite being milliseconds from taking a hit from Clowney on first-and-10 from his own 48-yard line, he fired a 32-yard completion to wide receiver Michael Bennett.
Clowney, who appeared limited at times by a foot injury, had one sack but was otherwise ineffective against the Bulldogs.
"I told the coaches, You got to put me somewhere else," a frustrated Clowney said afterward. "In the middle if you want to. Somewhere I can make some plays."
It's not like his teammates on the defensive front fared much better. Murray's gaudy numbers came in part because Georgia spent much of the day running the ball right through the Gamecocks. Sophomore tailback Todd Gurley carried 30 times for 134 yards and a touchdown. His backup, sophomore Keith Marshall added 58 yards on seven carries. In all, the Bulldogs ran 53 times for 227 yards.
"It was a good tail-kicking and I have to give Georgia credit," said Spurrier. "They ran it right down their throat. [Former Bulldogs coach] Vince Dooley probably has a smile on his face with the way they played tonight."
The victory was a particular triumph for Georgia's offensive line, which struggled mightily a year ago in a 35-7 loss at South Carolina, and which allowed four sacks and was flagged for several penalties last week against the Tigers. Starting left tackle Kenarious Gates went down with an ankle injury in the third quarter, but his replacement, Mark Beard, made one of the game's key plays early in the fourth.
As Murray took the snap on third-and-13 with just more than 13 minutes remaining, Clowney got inside Beard and was headed straight toward the quarterback. But Beard held him off just long enough for Murray to scramble to his left and loft a pass down the sideline to receiver Justin Scott-Wesley. The sophomore, in the lineup in place of injured star Malcolm Mitchell (who suffered a season-ending knee injury last week), caught Murray's throw and raced 85 yards to the end zone to extend the Bulldogs' lead to 41-30.
Georgia's inexperienced defense has not performed nearly as well as its offense has over the season's first two games. For much of the day on Saturday, Gamecocks tailback Mike Davis (16 carries, 149 yards, one touchdown) bulldozed the Dawgs' defenders, while quarterback Connor Shaw (16-of-25 for 228 yards and two touchdowns; 16 carries for 75 yards) efficiently picked them apart.
But Georgia did make one all-important stop after going up by 11 points in the fourth quarter. With less than 10 minutes remaining, South Carolina had once again moved the ball deep inside the red zone. On third-and-goal from the Bulldogs' three-yard line, Davis was brought down just short of the end zone. The sophomore had scored on a three-yard touchdown run on the Gamecocks' previous possession, when he had taken an option pitch from Shaw, who was lined up in the shotgun. Now, on fourth-and-goal from the one, Spurrier called the same play again -- but this time junior linebackers Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson snuffed it out for no gain.
When Georgia took over on downs, Richt said, "How glorious would it be if we could end the game right now?" He was looking for 99 yards; he didn't need quite that many. With help from third-string running back Brendan Douglas (five carries, 31 yards), the Dawgs ran 13 plays, gained 81 yards and ran out the clock.
"We made 'em quit tonight," said Georgia center David Andrews.
The Bulldogs get some quitting time this week, but then it's back to the grind. (Well, technically they play North Texas on Sept. 21.) They'll likely return to the top 10 by the time they play their next game, but they've got work to do on defense and special teams (where a dropped snap on a punt marked their second such snafu in as many weeks) to be ready for yet another highly ranked foe, LSU, on Sept. 28.
"Historically, for us, we get better as the season goes on," said Lynch. "The key was getting past these huge bumps at the beginning of the season. ... It's the first time in a while we're off on the right footing. We're 1-0, undefeated in the league. The sky's the limit."
But first, some well-earned rest.