Georgia running back Todd Gurley tries to stiff arm South Carolina’s T. J. Gurley before being pushed out of bounds after a long gain during Saturday’s game at Sanford Stadium in Athens. (Photo: Karl Moore)
ATHENS — For as much offense as there was in Saturday’s game between No. 11 Georgia and sixth-ranked South Carolina — and there was plenty — it may have been a pair of defensive plays that made the biggest difference.
A fumble recovery by sophomore Josh Harvey-Clemons in the third quarter helped turn momentum Georgia’s way, and a goal-line stand in the fourth, combined with the ensuing, time-consuming offensive possession, sealed the Bulldogs’ 41-30 victory before a capacity crowd of 92,746 at Sanford Stadium.
“Well, that was a fantastic game,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said after his Bulldogs (1-1, 1-0) took their SEC opener. “I was so proud of everybody. … I don’t even know where to start. I’m just proud of the whole group. … No one flinched. Everybody worked hard. These guys showed us something. We’re beginning to develop what type of team we are.”
The Bulldogs knew they had a strong offense, and showed it again Saturday, rolling up 536 yards of total offense — 309 of which came on 17-of-23 passing with four touchdowns from Aaron Murray with Todd Gurley running for 132 yards and a score on 30 carries and Justin Scott-Wesley hauling in three passes for 116 yards, including an 85-yard TD.
Georgia also kept Jadaveon Clowney relatively in check throughout most of the game.
South Carolina’s star defensive end did have three tackles, two of which were for loss, including a sack, but he wasn’t the factor he was in the Gamecocks’ domination win over Georgia a year ago in Columbia, S.C.
The Gamecock (1-1, 0-1) offense, meanwhile, nearly kept pace with Georgia, with quarterback Connor Shaw, from nearby Flowery Branch, racking up 303 yards of total offend with two TD passes, plus contributions from Mike Davis (16-149, TD) and Nick Jones (6-97 receiving, 2 TDs).
But the Georgia defense stepped up when it needed to, especially in the second half, when the Bulldogs held the Gamecocks to just six points.
“It shows we can play good football,” said Georgia linebacker Amarlo Herrera, who posted a game-high 12 tackles, including combining with Ramik Wilson on the biggest stop of the game late in the fourth quarter. “We can make plays and don’t have to depend on the offense so much. We can play the whole game and try to make stops.”
What had developed into an offensive shootout to that point switched gears on a turnover early in the third quarter.
After getting a stop from its defense on Georgia’s first possession of the second half, South Carolina looked in good shape after quarterback Connor Shaw scrambled 9 yards for an apparent first-down conversion on fourth and 5 to the Bulldogs’ 25.
But the ball popped loose just before his knee hit the ground, and Harvey-Clemons pounced on the ball to give Georgia the ball back after video review confirmed the call.
“That was huge,” Richt said. “They started driving right down the field, and fortunately, the ball came out.”
The Bulldogs eventually turned the recovery into a 37-yard field goal by Patrick Beless, and after a defense stop, they struck again, marching 82 yards in 13 plays before scoring on an 8-yard Aaron Murray to Todd Gurley TD pass that put Georgia in front 34-24 with 18 seconds left in the third quarter.
A 75-yard run by Mike Davis set up his own 3-yard touchdown run three plays later to pull South Carolina back to within 34-30 just 1:05 into the fourth quarter, but Georgia had an answer with a big play of its own on its next possession.
Facing third-and-13 on his own 15, Murray rolled to his left to avoid a heavy Gamecocks rush and found a wide-open Scott-Wesley down the left sideline for an 85-yard scoring strike that gave the Bulldogs their two-score lead back at 41-30 with exactly 13 minutes to play.
“Don’t get caught,” Scott-Wesley said when asked what he was thinking after catching the ball. “I guess it was a blown coverage. (Murray) kept (the play) alive. I just did my job, getting on the sideline, and I just turned on the jets.”
South Carolina drove inside the Georgia 1 on its next possession, when the Bulldog defense came up with its biggest play of the game.
On fourth and goal, Shaw pitched to Davis on the option to the right before being engulfed by Herrera, Wilson and a host of other Bulldogs, keeping the lead at 11 points.
“We knew it was coming,” Herrera said. “We just played assignment football and stuck to our assignments.”
Still, there was 8:28 remaining and a pair of penalties had backed the Bulldogs up to the shadow of their own end zone.
But a 23-yard swing pass from Murray to Quayvon Hicks on second and 9 from the 2 gave Georgia some breathing room.
From there, the Bulldogs methodically ate up yardage and drained time off the clock, with Gurley picking up yards on on fourth and 2 from the South Carolina eliminate the last glimmer of hope the Gamecocks had that they might get the ball back again.
“I said (to the offense), ‘How glorious would it be if we could end this game right now?’” Richt said. “I was shooting for 99 yards, but however many we got was enough to finish the game, and I was sure proud of those guys.”
The drive also was a telling moment for South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier.
“It was pretty obvious that Georgia was the stronger of the two teams out there (Saturday),” Spurrier said. “They kicked our tails up and down the field. We couldn’t stop them, and they made a bunch of third- (and fourth-) down conversions.”