The No. 11 Bulldogs were buried beneath questions and doubts before they ever stepped between the hedges against No. 6 South Carolina.
How would the offensive line stop Jadeveon Clowney? Just fine it turned out.
How would Aaron Murray handle another big game? Close to perfectly.
How would the inexperienced defense respond to getting pushed around by Clemson? With a critical goal-line stand when it mattered most.
How would Georgia finally beat Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks? In a shootout that ended in a filibuster and a 41-30 victory that was as big as any at Sanford Stadium since the blackout game against Auburn in 2007.
“No one flinched,” said Georgia head coach Mark Richt of the stress that came with an 0-1 record and a Southeastern Conference opener. “Everybody worked hard. Everybody believed. These guys showed me something. We’re beginning to define what type of team we are.”
The Bulldogs have been playing from a deficit so long now it’s a default setting. Two years ago the Gamecocks dropped them to 0-2 only to have Georgia rise up and win the division with 10 consecutive victories.
Last year it was an
embarrassing beatdown in Columbia that forced the Bulldogs to rally.
This was not a Houdini act Georgia was eager to reprise.
“You hate to so early in the season feel the pressure of all your goals on the line,” Richt said. “This game, if we lost, we weren’t out of the SEC race. We’ve come back from it before. It’s just no fun to be 0-2 and 0-1 in the league and hoping somebody gets beat and looking at the gauntlet ahead of you. It was good medicine to get a victory.”
All the things that seemed lacking a week ago in a tough defeat at Clemson were on the money Saturday. The offensive line minimized Clowney, opened up huge holes for a pounding rush game and let Murray make plays.
The last two of Murray’s four touchdown passes were masterful. Leading 27-24 and facing third-and-goal at the 8, Murray improvised as he bought time out of the pocket. Directing Todd Gurley with a hand gesture, he hit Gurley for a score.
“Aaron is a fast thinker under pressure,” reciever Chris Conley said. “He can make plays in all the situations and he’s a leader in that huddle.”
Then, after South Carolina refused to succumb and cut the margin to 34-30, Murray checked down to his second read on third-and-13 to hit Justin Scott-Wesley so wide open up the left side that it seemed like a trap. Scott-Wesley turned on his sprinters’ jets for an 85-yard touchdown.
But no lead was safe with the Gamecocks picking on Georgia’s young defense –freshman corner Brendan Langley in particular. Shaw and Davis moved all the way to the goal-line again before hitting fourth down at the 1. A defense that had yielded so much finally swarmed Davis for a loss of 1.
“After last week and people saying they don’t know what the defense is going to be like, that one stop shows what we can do,” said linebacker Jordan Jenkins.
The Bulldogs made them pay, running out the final 8:28 with 13 plays and 81 yards – 12 of them runs, including five for 31 yards by freshman Brendan Douglas, of Aquinas.
Richt said the final possession was the highlight of the game.
“Just to end the game and not let them touch it, that was by far my most favorite part of the game,” Richt said.
Now it’s South Carolina that has to play catch-up in a division that is a long way from lost. Eerily similar to Georgia against Clemson, the Gamecocks did plenty right on Saturday only to fall short by a few things gone wrong.
They matched Georgia’s rushing output with a superlative 149-yard effort from tailback Mike Davis.
Quarterback Connor Shaw was brilliant at times, but had a tough fumble that flipped the momentum.
The Gamecocks kept fighting back only to get stopped by a missed extra point and a tough goal-line stand.
While the Gamecocks now have to see if they can respond the way Georgia did the last two years, Georgia earned a little room to breath.