COLUMBIA, S.C. – The rumors of South Carolina’s demise will have to be put on hold for at least another week.
Left for dead on the side of Interstate 77, the Gamecocks headed into Saturday’s supposed beating as an afterthought in the SEC race. Forget Atlanta; South Carolina was just hoping it could play in another January bowl game.
After a 52-28 opening loss at home to Texas A&M, it seemed only logical that Georgia, a team many had tabbed as the nation’s best after its Week 1 thrashing of Clemson, would thump the Gamecocks right out of the SEC East picture.
But college football has a funny way of making us all look foolish and making the Head Ball Coach smile. After an hour-and-a-half weather delay pushed kickoff back to 5:05 p.m. ET and the skies opened up during the game, the 24th-ranked Gamecocks (2-1) held strong for a thrilling 38-35 win over No. 6 Georgia (1-1).
“Some wins are better than others,” said a chipper Spurrier, whose Gamecocks have won four of five against Georgia. “This one was better than most others.”
It was an instant classic that few saw coming, and now the Gamecocks are right back in the SEC race. In fact, with the schedule South Carolina has been blessed with, the Gamecocks are back in the conversation as the favorite in the SEC East.
Move over, Georgia, because again you’re looking up at South Carolina, and the Gamecocks on Saturday played like they weren't on the same planet as the team that sputtered around Williams-Brice Stadium during the first two weeks of the season.
“You have no idea how close this team is. It truly is unbelievable,” said South Carolina quarterback Dylan Thompson, who threw for a game-high 271 yards and three touchdowns. “… Even in the game when everyone was writing us off, we still love each other and we’re going to battle. That’s just the way that we play.
“I love this team. I love my brothers.”
The Gamecocks were far from perfect, but they were gritty. They were passionate and hopped up on "Sandstorm," played on six fantastically timed occasions.
Thompson picked apart Georgia’s secondary with ease. The middle of the field was wide open for most of the game, something Thompson admitted he saw on a lot of film during his game preparation.
Georgia running back Todd Gurley was his normal beastly self, but his 131 rushing yards weren’t enough. While South Carolina’s defense had a lot of bend with the dazzling Mr. Gurley, it refused to break at key moments and managed to contain him.
Gurley was going to get his yards, regardless, but what South Carolina did was put the game on Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason’s shoulders. Mason's inability to complete -- or really attempt -- big plays downfield allowed the Gamecocks to fill the box and put pressure on him, and he eventually had a costly intentional-grounding penalty in the fourth quarter.
Think about this: South Carolina gave up an average of 416 passing yards through the first two weeks, but allowed just 191 Saturday. That’s quite an improvement.
“I’ll tell you one thing: When we had to stop them, somehow or another we stopped them,” Spurrier said.
And things just kind of went the Gamecocks’ way in other situations. Georgia kicker Marshall Morgan set an SEC record with 20 consecutive made field goals and then missed two straight, including a 28-yard attempt to tie the game with 4:24 remaining.
As Spurrier replayed the moment in his mind, he couldn't help but briefly pause and look toward the sky while talking about such a historic pair of misses.
“Then their kid -- I guess he hadn’t missed a field goal in two years or something like that, 20 in a row -- and missed two tonight,” Spurrier said. “Sometimes, all you can say is it was our turn to win. We were meant to win this game, and Georgia was not.”
There’s no doubt that South Carolina has to get better, especially on defense. Opponents have converted 23 of 41 of their third downs, and this secondary is still susceptible to big plays. The Gamecocks' pass rush still has a lot of work to do, as well, which could put more pressure on the secondary.
But improvements were made in a game that saved South Carolina’s season.
The Gamecocks still have three opponents on their schedule that are currently ranked -- Missouri, Auburn and Clemson -- and there’s a trip to Gainesville, Florida, in November, but Alabama and LSU aren’t on the slate. The road to Atlanta isn’t open, but it’s not as congested as once thought.
This team will only get better, and we’ll be talking about the Gamecocks more than we thought we would before Saturday’s game.
“We still have all of our goals set,” running back Mike Davis said. “That one loss did not define us as a team.”