The good guys don’t always pull out a win in Hollywood. In 1976, the saga of Rocky Balboa began with a close loss to the champ, but it set the stage for a remarkable career for actor Sylvester Stallone and his alter-ego. Steve Spurrier will never concede positives after a loss, but his young alter-ego under center, Stephen Garcia, clearly came of age on a steamy night in Georgia between the hedges, and set the table for a potentially bright season and SEC race no one could have envisioned a week ago.
Like two heavyweight fighters, the two teams exchanged blow after blow from start to finish. Appropriately, the outcome of the game came down to the final play, a pass from Garcia to Weslye Saunders that was knocked down in the end zone. Talking about the play, Garcia said he wished he could have it back. The play began as a fourth down play on the four yard line, with the first down marker around the two yard line. Asked if he thought about running for the first down rather than throwing the pass to Saunders, Garcia said, “I saw #35 (Curran) come across and he was going to make a play, so I tried to sidearm it to Weslye. He put his arms up and knocked it down.”
Garcia took a page from his coach and mentor, talking initially more about the loss then he did any positives that could be taken away from the game. “We beat ourselves, that’s what it came down to. Two touchdowns called back, my interception, gave them the ball on our side of the field all the time. It’s tough to take a loss like this.”
When pressed, he acknowledged there were a lot of positives that could be taken from the game. “All summer long, we talked about a “new Carolina," and Coach Fitz talked to us about finishing games.” The sophomore QB said he felt very comfortable out there. “My teammates had confidence in me, I had confidence in the o-line, my receivers getting open, it just sucks really bad not coming out with a victory.”
Garcia made 53 attempts and 31 completions with one interception for 313 yards on the night, but just like last week, had a touchdown throw to Tori Gurley called back on a penalty. Only this week, it happened twice. He also threw one interception. Garcia and the South Carolina offense racked up 427 yards of total offense on 83 plays, 30 more offensive plays then Georgia got on the night.
Spurrier expressed frustration with his team’s efforts in the red zone Saturday night, when his team was forced to rely on the leg of Spencer Lanning to kick field goals rather than score touchdowns. Lanning responded with a perfect five for five night, tying a USC record for most field goals in a game held by Colin Mackie.
Spurrier said the 3:54 minute marathon was the longest game he had ever been involved in. The game was lengthened by 11 penalties called on Carolina and 13 on Georgia.
Georgia scored seven times, racked up 308 offensive yard of their own, and went 5-5 in the red zone.
As impressive as the offensive displays were, the game was decided by special teams play. The South Carolina special teams could not contain Georgia’s kickoff returns in the first half, and the Dawgs set a school record for return yards with 204 yards. In the first half. Brandon Boykin returned a kickoff 100 yards in the first quarter. UGA then started at their own 48, which led to a touchdown. They started at their own 21, which led to another touchdown. They turned a Garcia interception at the USC 33 into three points on a field goal. A second quarter return to the USC 40 resulted in another touchdown. The Gamecocks did a better job containing the UGA kickoffs in the second half, but couldn’t overcome the momentum the first half points generated by the UGA special teams gave the Dawgs.
Everyone expected a low-scoring defensive battle, but the Dawgs and the Gamecocks surprised everyone by scoring a combined 54 first half points, with the Dawgs leading 31-23. It was dramatic if not pretty, as the two teams combined for 16 penalties and three turnovers in the first half. The key stat again was Georgia setting the school record for kickoff yards in a game in the first half.
The USC defense made a lot of key plays, including an Eric Norwood interception that he returned 35 yards for a touchdown that put USC back in the game in the second half, but gave up a lot more yardage and points than they did in the season opener.
A.J. Green broke a lot of South Carolina fans’ hearts when he chose the Georgia Bulldogs over his home state Gamecocks, but he made them deliriously happy on Georgia’s opening drive when he fumbled the ball on the Dawgs’ 23, setting up the Gamecocks’ first score, a six yard pass from Stephen Garcia to Tori Gurley.
The momentum didn’t last long for the Gamecocks, as Brandon Boykin returned the ensuing kickoff 100 yards for the longest touchdown between the hedges in Georgia history, tying the game at 7-7.
On the next USC drive, Patrick Dimarco caught the ball for a 15 yard completion to the Gamecock 39, that was followed immediately by an 18 yard reception to the Georgia 43 by Jason Barnes. Stephen Garcia then threw what might be the best pass of his young career, a 43 yard guided missle, to Tori Gurley in the end zone. Unfortunately, just like last week’s touchdown pass to Gurley in the NC State end zone, it was called back on a penalty.
The first USC score came despite two penalties on that drive. Georgia was called for a key pass interference penalty, giving USC first down at the Georgia 24. Another Carolina penalty, this one for a chop block, backed USC up to the UGA 40. Garcia completed a pass to Dimarco, and another Georgia penalty, this one for a facemask, moved the ball to the Georgia 13. Garcia threw the ball to a wide open Brian Maddox, who jogged into the right side of the end zone untouched, to put the garnet and black up 14-7.
Georgia’s Branden Smith fumbled on the kickoff after Maddox’s touchdown, and South Carolina quickly negated the Dawgs' earlier special team touchdown with a 21 yard field goal by Spencer Lanning, the first of his career. Garcia ran the ball down to the 3 yard line before the offense bogged down, but Lanning’s 3 pointer put the Gamecocks up 21-7 with 5:07 still to go in the first quarter.
Georgia made it clear that this was going to be a barnburner when Boykin returned the next kickoff to the Bulldog 48. After a short gain, Richard Samuel’s 11 yard run gave Georgia a first down at the USC 37. Joe Cox then completed a pass down to the USC 20. After an incomplete pass, Samuel bulled to the 15. On a key third and five play, Cox’s pass was incomplete, but a pass interference call on Stephon Gilmore gave the Dawgs first and goal at the Carolina two. Samuel ran over right tackle for a touchdown, pulling the Dawgs with three, 17-14.
Starting at their own 20 yard line, the Gamecocks quickly gained a first down on a Garcia to Gurley 13 yard completion. Garcia faked the handoff on the next play to Giles and ran to midfield, only to have the play called back on a penalty on #72. A flag aborted the next play, and Georgia was called for five yards on an offsides penalty. A pass for no gain to Giles ended the action and error-packed first quarter, with USC leading 17-14 and facing a third and seven on their own 35.
The second quarter opened with a Georgia offsides penalty, but momentum was all on the Dawgs' side after that. USC was unable to capitalize on 3rd and 2, and was forced to punt. 46 seconds and two plays later, Georgia was in the end zone, scoring on a beautiful pass by Cox to Branden Smith. Then the Georgia defense made itself known, as they intercepted a Stephen Garcia pass on the USC 33. Another quick pass moved the ball down to the Gamecock 13, and Chop block backed up for a second and 25. Georgia kicked a field goal to put the Dawgs up 24-17.
USC regained the momentum on the next drive, which they started at their own 22 with 12:25 left in the half. On a critical third down play, USC appeared unable to keep a drive alive when Garcia was forced to throw the ball under pressure to the ground at a receiver’s feet, but the USC special teams came to the rescue on a fake punt, when Lanning ran 11 yards for a first down to the 36 yard line. Garcia then completed a 21 yard SEC caliber pass to Weslye Saunders and another first down at the Georgia 43. He completed another pass to Moe Brown for six yards down to the Georgia 37. Saunders then secured another first down on a catch at the UGA 29. Yet another penalty, this one for a false start, backed the Gamecocks up to the Dawgs' 34. Two straight incomplete passes set up another third down and 15. DL Moore made his first career catch at the UGA 22, but it was three yards short of the first down. USC initially set up to go for it on the 4th down and 3 play, then called a time out and sent in Spencer Lanning, who kicked a 39 yard field goal to cut the Dawg lead to four, 24-20.
Third and four for the Dawgs, Eric Norwood made his presence known in the Georgia backfield, forcing Cox to throw the ball away and forcing Georgia to punt for the first time. Akeem Auguste returned the ball to the USC 30. Garcia faked the ball to Giles and rumbled 18 yards to the Gamecock 48. Garcia then threw to Saunders, who rumbled on second effort all the way down to the UGA 34. He then passed to Giles, who stutter-stepped his way down the sideline before he was horse collared by #9. The ensuing penalty moved the ball down to the 12. Brian Maddox fought for four hard yards. After an incomplete pass, Garcia couldn’t find anyone open and was forced to run the ball himself, getting stooped at the UGA five. Lanning came in for another field goal, and Carolina pulled with one, 24-23.
USC continued to struggle with their kickoff coverage, allowing Smith to blast 48 yards to the Gamecock 40. Samuel rushed 11 to the 25 for a first down, but then an excellent pass play was called back on a holding penalty backed UGA up to the USC 35. The ball bounced off Gilmore’s hands and into the waiting hands of Georgia’s Michael Moore at the 16, just shy of the first down. Cox’s pass was batted back on second and one by Cliff Matthews, but Cox sneaked for the first down to the 14 with 37 seconds left in the half. USC’s pass defense held in the end zone, and a Cox pass to Samuel was kept in bounds at the USC 9 yard line, and Georgia was forced to call time out as the clock ticked down to 16 ticks. A.J. Green caught the ball in the back of the end zone to put Georgia up 31-23 with nine seconds left in the half.
South Carolina’s Justice Cunningham bobbled the kickoff reception but managed to hold on to the ball at their own 36. The half ended with Bryce Sherman touching the ball for the first time in his career and water bugging for 24 yards to the Georgia 40 yard line.
The third quarter quickly opened with yet another key penalty, when on a Georgia 3rd and 3, Akeem Auguste was called for pass interference, giving Georgia new life, and they capitalized on it, with a 34 yard Cox to Green pass play, giving them first and goal at the five. Then the flags started going the Gamecocks way, as the Bulldogs were backed up to the 15 on an illegal block in the back penalty. Samuel carried for seven yards down to the eight, then for four down to the four. On third and goal, Cox pitched the ball to Moore directly in front of him for a touchdown, giving UGA a 38-23 lead. The drive covered 80 yards in 9 plays, and took 5:56 off the clock.
It was time for the USC special teams and offense to respond if they were going to stay in this game. Culliver did the special teams part, returning the ball 57 yards to the Georgia 42. Then the offense did their part. Garcia hit Saunders for nine yards to the 33. He then hit Maddox for a first down at the 30. A third Carolina touchdown in two games to Tori Gurley was called back on a penalty.
USC was backed up to their 40, and Garcia coolly hit Saunders for 12 yards to the 28. After another pass to Saunders was incomplete, Garcia kept the ball, setting up a 4th and one at the Georgia 21. The Gamecocks went for it, and Maddox bulled his way for the first down to the Dawgs’ 18. The drive stalled, and a 35 yard Lanning field goal pulled USC within 12 again, 38-26.
A Georgia punt that sailed over the punter’s head gave USC two points and pulled them within ten points. A 34 yard Lanning field goal pulled them within 7 with 13:21 left in the game.
Norwood’s interception pulled USC within one, 38-37, but a blocked PAT made a key difference in the game as it left USC trailing by a point. On the final play of the game, Shane Beamer said USC would have been kicking a field goal and then playing in overtime instead of being forced to go for a touchdown, after Georgia scored the last points of the game on a 42 yard field goal by Blair Walsh.
USC is now 1-1 on the season, 0-1 in the SEC. Georgia is also 1-1, but is 1-0 in the SEC. USC returns home to play Florida Atlantic next Saturday, a game that begins a four game home stand.