ATHENS, Ga. -- Back in his Fun ‘N’ Gun days at Florida, Steve Spurrier was renowned for chortling “God smiled on the Gators” after big wins.
On Saturday, when this teeter-totter of a football game finally came to a rest on South Carolina’s side, the Head Ball Coach exhaled and once again suggested that a higher power might have been at work.
How else do you explain No. 12-ranked South Carolina’s dysfunctional 45-42 win over Georgia at Sanford Stadium?
Spurrier sure couldn’t.
“I’ve never won a game like this that I can remember,” said Spurrier, whose Gamecocks scored twice on defense and once on special teams. “Georgia outplayed us. Give them credit. But somehow or another, we won the game.
“Sometimes it happens like that. Somebody was looking out for us tonight.”
All you really need to know about this game is that one of South Carolina’s three non-offensive touchdowns came on a fake punt from its own 32 ... with a 276-yard defensive lineman rambling 68 yards for a touchdown and shaking Georgia’s All-SEC cornerback, Brandon Boykin, on his way to the end zone.
Of course, to hear his teammates talk, Melvin Ingram is no ordinary defensive lineman.
He’s been known to do back-flips on the practice field and can dunk a basketball.
“That wasn’t a punter or a kickoff guy trying to tackle him,” said South Carolina assistant head coach for the defense Ellis Johnson, referring to Boykin. “That was one of their best corners, an NFL corner that tried to tackle him on the second missed tackle. I guess he thought he was going to get run over, and (Ingram) shook him.
“It was just an unbelievable play. If that play doesn’t happen, we’re swimming on both sides of the ball.”
It wasn’t the only time Ingram found the end zone. He scooped up Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray’s fumble, caused by freshman defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, and scooted 5 yards for a touchdown to give the Gamecocks a 45-35 lead with 3:12 remaining.
And when Georgia tried an onsides kick after pulling within three points at the 2:15 mark, Ingram was there to recover for the Gamecocks.
Afterward, somebody asked him if he were going to also drive the team bus home. He smiled and said, “Nah, I’m going to relax.”
But only for the time being.
Nobody in garnet and black will be relaxing for long, because even though the Gamecocks are 2-0 and now own the head-to-head tiebreaker over Georgia in the Eastern Division race, they’ve given up 79 points in their first two games and never really got into a rhythm offensively Saturday.
In addition to Ingram’s two non-offensive touchdowns, Antonio Allen intercepted a Murray pass in the third quarter and returned it 25 yards for a touchdown.
“It’s an ugly win, but we’ll take it any way we can get it,” said South Carolina junior receiver Alshon Jeffery, who caught a 34-yard touchdown pass after Georgia had taken an early 6-0 lead. “A win is a win. You’ve got to finish the game in all three phases -- offense, defense and special teams. That’s how you win.”
According to South Carolina media relations officials, it’s the first time under Spurrier that the Gamecocks have been trailing in the fourth quarter and come back to win the game.
“Last year, we were learning how to win games,” Jeffery said. “This year, we’re building off what we did last year.”
Or, as Ingram put it, “building stepping stones and trying to be great.”
It would be a stretch to call South Carolina a great football team. Resourceful, maybe. But not great -- not yet.
What the Gamecocks do have are a couple of great playmakers.
The 6-4, 230-pound Jeffery is an impossible matchup for teams. His 34-yard touchdown catch was a thing of beauty, and he also stretched out and pulled in a key grab on a fourth-and-3 play from South Carolina’s own 40 in the fourth quarter.
And then there’s sophomore running back Marcus Lattimore, who took the game over in the fourth quarter with 94 of his 176 rushing yards.
The Bulldogs probably hope they never see Lattimore again. In two games against them, he’s rushed for 358 yards.
“When you’ve got Marcus back there, I’d give it to him every play, too,” Jeffery gushed.
Lattimore, though, said it was the defense that “saved our butts,” and he conceded that something has been missing on the practice field lately in Columbia.
“We’ve got to pick up the intensity in practice,” Lattimore said. “It’s kind of been down a little bit. Me as a leader, I’ve got to step up a little bit more and make sure we pick up the intensity. We’ve got to play better.”
The Gamecocks now have four straight home games and will be favored in all four.
Historically, they haven’t handled success particularly well, but this has been a bunch that has shrugged its shoulders at history. Prior to last season, South Carolina had never played in the SEC championship game.
The Gamecocks took a big step Saturday toward getting back there, even if it was one of those games you’re not going to bottle up as a keepsake.
“It’s the most bizarre win I’ve had in college,” South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia said. “But all that matters is that we got the win.”