Loss reminds Bulldogs how pivotal SEC opener will be

  • Follow Scott Michaux

ATHENS, Ga. --- The sting lingers. In fact, time has only made it worse.

On Sept. 8, 2007, South Carolina and its villainous coach, Steve Spurrier, went into Sanford Stadium and stuffed Georgia with a 16-12 win. It was the first time the Bulldogs hadn't scored a touchdown since 2001, the last time a Gamecocks defense stymied them -- on the same field in a 14-9 upset.

"Quite frankly, they physically whipped our tail," Georgia coach Mark Richt said.

It was a serious blow, no doubt, conjuring dark memories of all the years Spurrier tormented Georgia when he was the head ball coach at Florida. But on that afternoon and for the next month, nobody really knew just how big a blow it was.

By mid-October, South Carolina had climbed to 6-1 and was No. 6 in the national polls. Georgia had been dealt another decisive loss at Tennessee and pulled out a last-second victory over Vanderbilt. Nobody was giving that early-season setback a second thought.

And then everything changed.

The Gamecocks lost their last five games and failed to get an invitation to a bowl. The Bulldogs suddenly came to life and finished the season as the hottest and most feared team in the country.

"Their team got a lot stronger and better as the season progressed," Spurrier said. "Unfortunately our team went the other way."

By the time the regular season was drawing to a close, Georgia was ranked No. 4 in the country. After the Nos. 2 and 3 teams lost on the final weekend, the Bulldogs were seemingly poised to move up to the No. 2 spot that would earn them a place in the BCS Championship Game.

In its new context, that loss three months earlier to a redefined South Carolina team looked devastating. It cost them a spot in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game. And since they didn't get that shot at eventual national champion LSU, it cost them in the final balloting as they were leapfrogged by three teams, including the Tigers.

For the next nine months, the if-only game has been gestating heading to another border bash.

"That one game kind of knocked us out," said Georgia senior defensive tackle Corvey Irvin. "We weren't really moping but everybody was saying if we did this or if we did that we could possibly be playing for the national championship. That makes us hungry because they knocked us out of the SEC championship and maybe the national championship last year. We did some good things last year but we could have been even better if we beat those guys."

On paper, it would seem like another mismatch this year. On one hand is the preseason No. 1 team coming off two dominating warm-up victories that showcased strengths on offense, defense and special teams. On the other is an unranked squad smarting from another defeat at the hands of Vanderbilt and encountering offensive turbulence.

But this rivalry has never been defined by what's on paper.

"We're playing the team we always play first, the one that's kind of a blood bath always," Richt said.

That inartistic element has always been characterized by defense. Maybe it's the early September window. Maybe it's the relative early-season health and confidence. Maybe it's just the makeup of the Gamecocks program. But for all of the offensive wealth the Bulldogs have enjoyed in recent years, it has not often materialized on South Carolina week.

"I think it's just defense to me," said Irvin, a Laney alum. "Both of the defenses just come up to play. If you check through the years it's not been a high-scoring game."

Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford certainly understands. It was in Williams-Brice Stadium two years ago that he got his big break as a true freshman when starter Joe Tereshinski went down with a first-quarter injury. Stafford stepped in and somewhat awkwardly guided Georgia to a win.

Despite a year's seasoning, Stafford was harassed last season behind a young offensive line. He was sacked three times, completed just 42 percent of his passes and was picked off on the game's final desperate play. It's understandable why Stafford says that South Carolina game films are his least favorite to watch.

"Just being frustrated the whole game and me personally not playing well at all," Stafford said of his 2007 recollections without the harsh reminders on videotape. "We couldn't get anything going last year and struggled to find any rhythm on offense really."

Here it is again. The heat of September brings another Georgia-South Carolina week. Georgia's road ahead is littered with challenges presumably far more imposing than the one Saturday. There's Arizona State, Alabama, Tennessee, LSU, Florida, Auburn and Georgia Tech. Every one of them is a potential -- if not likely -- pitfall.

But hindsight makes it clear that Saturday is a pivotal encounter for the No. 2 Bulldogs. It's a day they understand could nullify everything they might accomplish the next three months.

"We kind of got a little edge on our shoulders to get the revenge and get the win this weekend," Irvin said.

Revenge won't heal the sting of an opportunity lost, but it could avoid living another year with regret.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.

BORDER BASH


WHAT: Pregame party in Augusta


INFO: borderbash.net


WHEN: 4-11:30 p.m. Friday


WHERE: Augusta Common, 700 block downtown between Broad and Reynolds streets


TICKETS: $10, VIP $100, benefits children's charities; advance tickets at Hooters, Communigraphics and Circle K locations; children younger than 12 admitted free


NOTABLE: Appearances by university mascots and cheerleaders; performances by the Joe Stevenson Band and the Classic Rock All-Stars

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