For the longest time, it seemed inevitable that the more gifted team would win at the end. Gifted teams tend to do that. Had that happened here Saturday, these fingers would have typed something like, “Georgia didn’t deserve to win, but it did.” No need for such hedging now.
Georgia lost, and it deserved to lose.
The nation’s No. 3 team – No. 3 until Sunday, anyway – lost at home to an opponent that entered 2-3 and was playing behind its No. 2 quarterback. Shortly after halftime, South Carolina was working with its No. 3 quarterback, Ryan Hilinski having suffered a leg injury when Georgia linebacker Adam Anderson hit him low and late. By then the Gamecocks were ahead. They never trailed again, even through two overtimes when it was clear they had no chance to score a touchdown.
South Carolina shouldn’t have won, but it did. (Final score: 20-17 in double OT.) Georgia should never have lost, but it fooled around enough to get handed its worst loss since Year 1 under Smart, and even those didn’t feel this bad. The 2016 Bulldogs were in the throes of transition; they deem themselves of championship-caliber now.
Said receiver Demetris Robinson: “I feel like we didn’t come ready to play. South Carolina came in and executed and was more dominant.”
Said linebacker Monty Rice: “We didn’t think they weren’t a good team. But the best team doesn’t always win. The team that plays best does.”
The stats show Georgia outgaining its conqueror 468 yards to 297 and holding the ball for 36 minutes to 24. This means less than nothing. The Bulldogs were loose with the ball, which they rarely are, and Jake Fromm was the loosest, which never happens. But it did. He fumbled a snap. He threw his first interception of the season. Then he threw his second. Then his third, this one a deflection off wideout Tyler Simmons’ hands.
When you have the ball first in OT and you give it away, you’re usually doomed. Georgia got away with it. South Carolina’s Parker White missed his 33-yard field-goal try wide right. Now, you figured, the lucky Dogs had no option but to put the weary Gamecocks to sleep. But no. After they couldn’t score from the Georgia 2, White converted from 24 yards. A Georgia touchdown would win it. But no again.
The Bulldogs ran the ball once and threw it twice. They gained nothing. They summoned Rodrigo Blankenship – who’d made every kick this season until having a field-goal try blocked at the shank of the first half – and the folk hero pulled it left. South Carolina players started running toward the far end zone, and your first thought was, “Why are they running?” And then the incredible truth hit: Because they’d won. They upset the nation’s No. 3 team behind their No. 3 quarterback.
Said an ashen-faced Blankenship: “I have to go look at it and see what happened.”
Then, asked how he felt: “Like I didn’t do my job.”
Georgia trailed after one quarter, Hilinski having found Bryan Edwards for a 46-touchdown between two defenders. D’Andre Swift’s 1-yard run put Georgia ahead 10-7. White’s 49-yarder tied the score three minutes before halftime. Then, as the Bulldogs were hurrying to break the tie, Fromm threw the pass that changed the game.
Under pressure, he threw off-balance toward George Pickens. “I wanted it to be one of those ‘only’ balls,” Fromm said. “If our guy doesn’t catch it, it’s out of bounds.”
It was neither. Israel Mukuamu intercepted and scored. Georgia trailed 17-10, which was surprising. This part was incredible: Georgia would trail 17-10 until 1:48 remained in regulation. This with South Carolina mustering seven first downs, two by penalty, over two quarters.
If not for a flag for defensive holding on the Bulldogs’ penultimate drive of the fourth quarter, the Gamecocks might have won in regulation. Their subsequent possession ended when White missed a 57-yarder short. Say this for Will Muschamp, who seldom outcoaches anybody: He played to win. And he outcoached his former Georgia teammate this day.
Which brings us to Kirby Smart. Georgia moved to the Gamecocks’ 38 with eight seconds left. That would have been a 55-yard try for Blankenship, maybe the nation’s best kicker. The Bulldogs had no timeouts left. They sought to run another play. They were called for an illegal shift, costing them both five yards and five seconds. Blankenship never got to try to win it. Fromm wound up throwing an incompletion that came close to being another interception.
Said Smart: “The penalty obviously killed us.”
Something about Georgia seemed off from the start. The noon kickoff is always dreaded by Bulldogs insiders who haven’t gotten over the Missouri game of 2013. The offense gained yards but never a rhythm. Nine times in regulation, Georgia ran the ball on both first and second down, and by the second half the Sanford Stadium patrons had begun to boo.
Said Smart: “You try to play to your strengths. … The strength of our team is our backs and our offensive line.”
And yet, he said just a minute earlier: “I felt like (the Gamecocks) won the line of scrimmage.”
South Carolina maximized every resource. Offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon – still the only undefeated Georgia head coach, albeit in an interim role – shepherded two freshmen quarterbacks through four quarters and two overtimes on the road. The Gamecocks managed only one offensive touchdown, but they didn’t turn it over. Georgia did. Therein, according to Smart, was the tale of this mammoth upset.
But there was surely more to it. The Bulldogs hadn’t lost between the hedges since the Georgia Tech game of 2016. This marked the first time since then that they’d trailed in the fourth quarter. They’ve gotten so accustomed to blowing people out that the rare teams that can stand their ground – we think of Auburn in 2017 and LSU last year – seem to surprise Georgia.
At no time Saturday did the Bulldogs appear a playoff team, which isn’t to say they can’t become one. Their job is the same as it was after Auburn two years ago and LSU 12 months ago: They must win the rest of their games. “We’ve just got to get tighter and get better,” Smart said, and maybe they will.
Still, this loss was unlike any in my 40 years of covering the SEC. Over that span, Georgia had been beaten at Sanford Stadium only once when ranked this high, and that was by No. 8 Alabama on the night of the Blackout. The Bulldogs simply don’t lose this sort of game here. But they just did.
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