The University of South Carolina football team cleared the first big hurdle in its quest to repeat as SEC Eastern Division champions on Saturday – edging the Georgia Bulldogs 45-42 “between the hedges” in Athens, Georgia.
As they did a week ago in their season opening win over East Carolina, the Gamecocks (2-0, 1-0 SEC) relied on defensive takeaways and a critical special teams play to capture a victory in their SEC opener over the Bulldogs (0-2, 0-1 SEC).
The Gamecocks also needed (and got) yet another sensational performance from Heisman Trophy candidate Marcus Lattimore – who racked up 176 yards on 27 carries to help seal the deal in a see-saw contest that saw eight lead changes. A year ago, Lattimore pounded out 182 yards on 37 carries to help the Gamecocks grind out a smash mouth 17-6 win over the Bulldogs in Columbia, S.C.
This game bore virtually no resemblance whatsoever to that workmanlike contest – at least not until the fourth quarter, when Lattimore ground out 95 yards on 13 carries in leading the Gamecocks on a pair of scoring drives.
Instead, it resembled the 41-37 shootout that took place the last time these two teams hooked up in Athens – only this time the Gamecocks hung on for the win, giving South Carolina fans consecutive victories over the Bulldogs to celebrate for the first time in more than a decade and the first time ever under head coach Steve Spurrier.
Meanwhile Georgia – whose head coach Mark Richt’s future is now very much in doubt – began a season 0-2 for the first time since 1996 and extended a recent stretch of futility against ranked teams.
“I think we have all the ingredients to be a really fine team, ultimately,” Richt said after the game.
Indeed, Georgia racked up 436 yards worth of total offense against the Gamecocks’ highly-touted defensive unit – and kept USC’s potent offense at bay for most of the first half. The Bulldogs dominated the first quarter of play, and were leading 13-7 late in the second quarter when they forced what appeared to be USC’s fifth punt of the half.
That’s when Spurrier made one of the gutsiest play calls of his USC career.
With just two minutes remaining on the clock before halftime, USC senior All-SEC defensive lineman Melvin Ingram took a short snap out of the Gamecocks’ punt formation, leaped over Bulldogs’ cornerback Brandon Boykin and sprinted 68 yards down the left sideline en route to a critical touchdown just when it seemed like Georgia was on the verge of taking over the game.
The 6-foot-2, 276-pound Ingram – who did his best “Rocket” Ismail imitation on the fake punt rumble – later scored the game-winning touchdown, scooping up a fumble from Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray late in the fourth quarter and returning it five yards for the score.
Who forced that fumble? Freshman defensive end Jadeveon Clowney – last year’s No. 1 high school recruit – who also picked up his second collegiate sack on the play.
That was just one of several huge defensive plays that bailed the Gamecocks’ offense out of trouble – at least until Lattimore finally got revved up. Early in the third quarter, with Georgia’s offense clicking (and South Carolina’s stumbling), All-SEC cornerback Stephon Gilmore scooped up a Bulldog fumble and raced 57 yards with it – setting up an 8-yard touchdown run by senior quarterback Stephen Garcia.
On the very next play from scrimmage, USC “Spur” linebacker Antonio Allen picked off a Murray pass and took it back 25 yards for the touchdown – giving USC a 28-20 lead (and giving Allen defensive scores in each of the Gamecocks’ last three regular season games).
South Carolina finished with 395 total yards – most of it on the ground – but it was an uneven offensive performance. A week after winning back his starting job against East Carolina – Garcia didn’t look his sharpest in Athens. He completed just 11 of 25 passes for 142 yards with one touchdown and a pair of interceptions. As usual, Garcia’s favorite target was All-American wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, who hauled in five catches for 85 yards – including a 34-yard touchdown.
Pic: Travis Bell, Sideline Carolina