ATHENS, Ga. - South Carolina might not be a great team yet. It certainly didn't look like one for most of Saturday's game at Georgia.
But the No. 21 Gamecocks did what great teams always do. They overcame their mistakes and made the big plays when they absolutely had to.
The biggest of the big came with 1:22 left and South Carolina trailing by two points before a sellout crowd of 86,520 at Sanford Stadium. On third-and-10 from Georgia's 16-yard line, quarterback Phil Petty hit receiver Brian Scott for a touchdown pass to give the Gamecocks a 14-9 win that seemed virtually impossible moments earlier.
"I hated the thought of that long bus ride home," said Gamecocks coach Lou Holtz, whose team held Georgia (1-1, 0-1 SEC) without a touchdown for the first time since a 22-3 loss to Tennessee in 1998. The last time South Carolina kept the Bulldogs out of the end zone was 1904.
"We played hard enough to win, but not smart enough to win," said Georgia coach Mark Richt, who suffered his first loss as a head coach.
After Billy Bennett's field goal gave Georgia a 9-7 lead with 3:17 left, South Carolina (2-0, 1-0) drove 66 yards in nine plays to earn its second straight win over the Bulldogs and its first in Athens since 1993.
The Gamecocks converted three third-and-10s on the drive, including a 32-yard pass from Petty to freshman Matthew Thomas down the left sideline that gave South Carolina a first down at the 16.
The Gamecocks did all this without star running back Derek Watson, who was hampered by cramps for most of the game.
On third-and-10 from the 16, it appeared the Gamecocks would run the ball and set up a field goal. But after some discussion on the sidelines, they decided to go for the end zone.
Holtz said his son, offensive coordinator Skip Holtz, made the final call.
"I didn't want to put that much pressure on a place-kicker if I didn't have to," Lou Holtz said.
Georgia cornerback Bruce Thornton appeared to have good position to pick off - or at least deflect - Petty's pass.
But somehow, on a night when so much went wrong for the Gamecocks, Scott snatched the ball out of the air and a win from the Bulldogs.
"I felt like I was due for it," Scott said. "It was supposed to be a post-corner route, but I cut it a little short because I couldn't get over (Thornton).
"You always dream about making a game-winning catch, and especially against a top team like Georgia."
GEORGIA FANS WERE reinvigorated by coach Mark Richt's no-huddle, fast-break offense. But the 40-year-old coach's fast break broke down when it mattered and marred a solid performance from the Bulldogs' defense.
With 5:36 left, Thornton returned a fumble by Watson - the Gamecocks' only turnover of the game - to the 10-yard line.
The Bulldogs had a second-and-goal from the 1 after a Gamecocks penalty and a 4-yard run by tailback Musa Smith.
But a false start penalty pushed the ball to the 6, and after Smith ran for no gain on second down, a delay-of-game infraction forced Georgia into a third-and-goal from the 11.
After a quarterback draw by Cory Phillips produced a yard, Bennett hit the field goal - his third of the night - to put Georgia up 9-7.
"We would drive long and get in the red zone, but we just couldn't make the play," said David Greene, the Bulldogs' starting quarterback. "We just really beat ourselves on offense."
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The field goal appeared sufficient on several occasions during the Gamecocks' final possession. The Gamecocks faced third-and-10 from their own 33, but Petty hit Ryan Brewer over the middle for 19 yards.
South Carolina faced another third-and-10 from its 48, but Petty found Thomas for the catch that set up the winning score.
"I never saw it," Petty said of his game-winning toss. He was hit by linebacker Will Witherspoon just as he released the pass.
"But I knew it had a chance."
Before the game, Holtz worried about his lack of playmakers at wide receiver, and his fears were confirmed for most the game. Aside from Watson's 66-yard return on the opening kickoff, the big-play well was mostly dry for the Gamecocks.
MAKING MATTERS MORE daunting for South Carolina, Watson's cramps left him mostly ineffective. The junior finished with 13 yards rushing on eight carries and three catches for minus-5 yards.
Had Watson been completely healthy, he might not have had much room to run anyway. The Bulldogs' defense was led by its linebackers, who used their speed to swarm the Gamecocks' backfield and clog rushing lanes.
Georgia came up huge early in the fourth quarter, with South Carolina up 7-6. The Gamecocks drove to the Bulldogs' 35 on their first drive of the half but came up with nothing, then they had a first-and-10 at Georgia's 21 thanks largely to a 43-yard completion from Petty to Brewer.
But the Bulldogs' defense responded. On fourth-and-1 from the 21, linebackers Adrian Hollingshed and Boss Bailey stuffed fullback Andrew Pinnock for no gain.
Three possessions later, Georgia got a gift when Thornton grabbed Watson's fumble and gave the Bulldogs possession at South Carolina's 10.
"In the second half, we didn't get anything going," Richt said. "As good as our defense played, we did not put any points on the board. The biggest thing that hurt us was the inability to make the big play when we needed to."
The talk coming in centered on the Gamecocks' defense and its dismantling of the Bulldogs in 2000. But Georgia's defense proved it might be worth some recognition as well.
The Bulldogs held South Carolina to 45 total yards in the first half and sacked Petty three times before halftime - two of them coming from defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan.
For the most part, South Carolina's offensive line gave Petty ample time to throw. But Georgia's secondary tightened the clamps on the Gamecocks receivers, giving Petty few opportunities.
Until the last drive.
Said Holtz: "We won on the road in a big game in a difficult environment."
Who shined: South Carolina quarterback Phil Petty. With Georgia blanketing his receivers for most the night, the senior quarterback came through when he had to.
What worked: Going for seven instead of three. Facing third-and-10 from Georgia's 16, the Gamecocks appeared content to settle for a field goal until Petty hit Brian Scott for the winning touchdown.
What didn't: A fake punt by the Gamecocks. On fourth-and-3 from the Bulldogs' 45 midway through the third quarter, Derek Watson was stopped a yard short and Georgia took over.
What's next: South Carolina plays host to Bowling Green on Saturday at 7 p.m. Houston visits Georgia at 1 p.m.
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645 or email@example.com.
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