It’s Monday night now. Five days from right now, we’ll know the outcome of Georgia @ South Carolina. Either the Gamecocks will be virtually eliminated from the SEC race while it’s still hot outside, or the Dawgs will suffer a major set back in their own quest to reach Atlanta.
It’s always a war over there for us and I predict that Saturday will be no different. If you’re a betting man, you’d probably have to go back to the days of Vince Dooley to find the last time Georgia/ South Carolina went Over the total in South Carolina. If you’re a Georgia fan, you realize that a handful of plays – less than five through the years – going differently would mean a 1-5 career record for Mark Richt at Williams-Brice Stadium.
I was thinking about our past trips to South Carolina today in the Mark Richt era. Here are few thoughts, observations, and memories.
This one actually set up just as this season does. We opened with Clemson at home, had a bye week, and then traveled to Columbia for a 3:30pm CBS games. With a large thunderstorm bearing down on the South Carolina Fairgrounds and predicted to hit shortly after kickoff, Mark Richt elected to take the football upon winning the toss (in one of those weird coincidences, the Dawgs won the coin toss in each of their 13 wins that season and lost the coin toss in Jacksonville prior to their only loss). After receiving the kick, David Greene immediately hit Fred Gibson on a long pass to put the Dawgs in field goal range. Billy Bennett converted and the Dawgs took a 3-0 lead. The game was then delayed around 90 minutes by lightning. Upon resumption, it began to look like 3-0 may well be the final score as neither offense could get on a track. A Tyson Browning fumble in the South Carolina represented the last scoring chance for UGA for what seemed like three hours.
Of course, we all remember the David Pollack strip of Georgia native Dondrail Pinkins in the endzone, that gave that Dawgs their only touchdown of the afternoon.
What sometimes gets forgotten is that South Carolina, down 13-7, mounted a furious charge at the end of the game and had a 4th and goal with a few seconds left from inside the Georgia 5. A fumble on the option pitch and recovery by Thomas Davis ultimately preserved the win for the Dawgs. Afterward Richt stated that the defense would have made the stop anyway, regardless of the fumble. Having watched the replay several times, I remain unconvinced. A special season, and a legend, were both born in Columbia that afternoon.
The Dawgs opened the 2004 season ranked #3 in the country and, following an unimpressive win over Georgia Southern, headed east to Columbia for a 5:00pm kickoff on ESPN against the Gamecocks. Adversity hit early that afternoon. Tyson Browning fumbled a punt, which put South Carolina in great field position. Danny Ware was lost with a chest bruise. Prior to his departure, Ware was stopped on the South Carolina 2 yard line, driven into the endzone, and a safety was inexplicably awarded to South Carolina. The Gamecocks took a 16-0 lead at that point and lead 16-6 going into halftime.
Slowly, very slowly, the Dawgs started chipping back. Michael Cooper, who would become something of a forgotten man, had his last good moments as a Dawg in the second half (sans an inexplicable personal foul for taunting). Tyson Browning redeemed himself as well, spelling Cooper and providing a huge lift out of the backfield.
David Greene struggled mightily throughout, but collected himself enough in the 4th quarter to hit Reggie Brown down the seam for a touchdown with around 5 minutes left. The defense held on and the Dawgs left Columbia with a 20-16 victory.
South Carolina fans will likely remember the game for the ultra conservative play calling in the second half. The Gamecocks seemed unwilling to throw down the field and appeared content to attempt to milk the final 30 minutes off the clock with a 10 point lead. I would wager that if you asked Lou Holtz, in an honest moment, if he could change one half of football in his career, the 2nd half of the 2004 Georgia/ South Carolina game would come to mind.
The only easy win for Mark Richt in Columbia, and it wasn’t that easy. The Dawgs came in 1-0, as defending SEC champions, but were a very young, inexperienced team, with very limited “weapons” on offense. A 7:45pm prime time kickoff in Columbia seemed like a very tall task. Joe Tereshinki started and was injured early in the 1st quarter. He was replaced by true freshman Matthew Stafford. Those of you who watched the first half of the Detroit/ New York Giants game this evening on Monday Night Football saw a far different Matthew Stafford than the one who took the field 8 years earlier in Columbia. That night, Stafford was clearly in over his head, playing on the road against his first legitimate competition. Three INTs and numerous questionable decisions later, the Dawgs pulled out an 18-0 win, based solely on the play of the defense and running game.
I believe it was the first (and last) time that a Steve Spurrier team had ever been blanked. While this was the weakest South Carolina offense that we saw in Columbia during Richt’s tenure, the play of the Georgia defense should not be forgotten. Danny Verdun-Wheeler, Jarvis Jackson, Tony Taylor, Kelin Johnson, and especially Charles Johnson all had monster performances, and collectively played arguably their most physical games as Bulldogs.
I would imagine that some South Carolina fans, after witnessing Stafford’s 2006 performance, could not believe that they were seeing the same person two years later. Armed with arguably the most talented set of skill position players to ever suit for Georgia, Stafford and the Dawgs began the 2008 season ranked #1 in the nation. Despite winning their first two games with relative ease, the Dawgs dropped to #3 by the time the South Carolina game, a 3:30pm kickoff on CBS, rolled around. On a sweltering hot day, the game is remembered as much for mistakes as it was good, sound execution.
There was an easy interception not made by Asher Allen, who strangely batted down the pass with one hand instead of catching it with two.
There was Richard Samuel displaying stunningly poor field vision and balance (a constant refrain through a career miscast as a tailback) near the goal line, causing us to settle for a field goal.
There were missed blocking assignments all afternoon, leading to some of the most impressive 3 yard runs imaginable from Knowshon Moreno.
The Dawgs trailed 7-6 at halftime, following a chip shot field goal by freshman Blair Walsh to end the second quarter.
The second half was more of the same limited offense as the line simply could not give Stafford enough time to throw and could not open holes for Moreno. Worse yet, the South Carolina offense, though they weren’t scoring, were really taxing the defense.
South Carolina would move to at least the Georgia 32 yard line on each of its last four possessions, but would score no points. Two turnovers inside the Georgia 5 yard line (a recovered fumble by Rennie Curran and an interception by Reshad Jones) sealed the deal.
The Dawgs won 14-7, generating only 252 yards of offense, and for the first time that season, legitimate questions emerged about Georgia’s viability as a national power.
The Dawgs entered this 12:00pm ESPN kickoff with a new quarterback in Aaron Murray, new defensive coordinator in Todd Grantham, and sophomore tailback Washaun Ealey, who following some late season success as a true freshman, was suspended for the Bulldogs opener. South Carolina boasted a blue chip newcomer named Marcus Lattimore.
It’s funny how, looking back on games past, we can see the start of certain patterns. Kicking off the South Carolina, the Dawgs immediately put the Gamecocks in 3rd and long. South Carolina converted 4 3rd downs on their opening drive, which ended with a Marcus Lattimore touchdown run.
If the plan was to force Stephen Garcia into making a mistake, Marcus Lattimore saw that it would be unsuccessful. The freshman would carry the football 37 times for 182 yards, with a long run of a relatively small 24 yards. It seemed that Lattimore generated around 80% of his yardage between the tackles and South Carolina became content to pound the football with their big back, knowing that the Georgia defense still had to respect Alshon Jeffrey’s ability to stretch the field.
Three times the Dawgs entered the South Carolina redzone on the afternoon. Those possessions yielded 6 points. The final trip, trailing 14-6, ended with a Washaun Ealey fumble on the South Carolina goal line, similar to the Dawgs last real chance to score and even the contest against Kentucky the season before.
Georgia lost 17-6 in a game that didn’t feel that close, generating only 253 yards of offense. Several key items emerged that afternoon. For one, the Dawgs seemed to have a legitimate quarterback in Aaron Murray. Secondly, the defense was undersized up front and had trouble tackling as a whole. Third, Washaun Ealey clearly had not managed to “build” on his solid freshman campaign. And finally, the still suspended AJ Green represented Georgia’s only legitimate offensive weapon. As I say, it’s interesting to look back at the start of a trend.
One of the darkest nights for Mark Richt.
The Dawgs entered this top five matchup, played strangely in October thanks to SEC expansion, as a legitimate national title contender. Boasting two highly talented freshman tailbacks in Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, third year QB Aaron Murray, and a solid stable of wide receivers (which took a hit the week prior thanks to Michael Bennett‘s injury) the Dawgs had rolled up at least 41 points in each of its first five games.
I will forever be at a loss to describe what happened that night. An absolutely electric atmosphere greeted this 8:00pm ESPN kickoff. While it appeared that Georgia would be able to wrest some early momentum with a Baccari Rambo interception, the football was ripped from Rambo’s arms by the South Carolina receiver for a long first down, further igniting the crowd. South Carolina then went up 7-0.
Aaron Murray was intercepted on the next drive. South Carolina scored again. 14-0.
Three and out for the Dawgs. Colin Barber’s punt was returned 70 yards for a touchdown by Ace Sanders. 21-0 South Carolina.
Approximately 35 minutes of real time into the contest, the Dawgs were down by three scores. From there, simply put, Georgia quit.
Sure, the Dawgs would mount a decent drive inside the South Carolina 5 yard line, before being stuffed four plays in a row and giving the football back. And sure, 21-0 as a halftime deficit is not too much to overcome under normal circumstances. But these were decidedly abnormal. The Georgia offensive line simply could not block Jadeveon Clowney or Kelcy Quarles. Worse yet, South Carolina had Lattimore to bleed the clock. The Gamecocks could go with their 2004 second half strategy again if they wanted, and would have no trouble winning easily. Our locker room had to know that.
With the benefit of hindsight being 20/20, the Dawgs probably got away from the run game too quickly. Murray was never comfortable on the night in the face of the pass rush, and the hole was dug so quickly that the Dawgs had start airing out the football. Still, one wonders if the game may have turned out differently if the Georgia offense featured Gurley more prominently in the 1st quarter. Gurley would have what remains his statistically weakest game as a Bulldog, with only 39 yards on 13 carries.
South Carolina would eventually expand the lead to 35-0 before a garbage time touchdown by Georgia fan favorite Ken Malcome would end the scoring at 35-7.
Two things I personally remember about the second half were watching it only in passing, for perhaps the only time in my life, and more importantly, seeing UGA Athletic Director Greg McGarity on the sideline during the 4th quarter. As Georgia entered its bye week following the South Carolina game, the rumor is that either McGarity (or Richt, at McGarity’s urging) called a staff meeting and advised all Georgia assistants that they were coaching for their jobs the rest of the season. According to rumors that somehow manage to leak out of the air tight Butts-Meher building, at least one assistant offered his resignation on the spot, which was declined. This would, again allegedly, mark the first of two Octobers in which staff changes were threatened internally following a double digit loss.
Mark Richt has been a party to two other completely non-competitive efforts. Both came in consecutive trips to Knoxville in 2007 and 2009. While those showings were shameful in their own rights, the 2007 team already had one loss and had been a bit shaky to that point in the season. The 2009 team already had two losses under its belt when it went to Knoxville and, given the strength of Florida that season, it was apparent that 2009 would be an average at best season in Athens. The 2012 South Carolina game was different. Georgia was ranked in the top 5 and appeared to be a legitimately elite team. This wasn’t the CBS game default as was the case in Knoxville in 2007, nor was it a noon regional broadcast like the 2009 Tennessee game. This was Brent Musburger, College Gameday, a full of week of national media hype, and arguably the most raucous atmosphere to ever await Richt.
When I look at the game in South Carolina this upcoming Saturday, I think about all the talented Georgia teams who have gone to Williams Brice and failed to crack 300 yards of offense. I think the turnovers, the crowd noise, the physical nature of the contests, and razor’s edge on which 3 of Richt’s 4 wins in Columbia were played. I frankly don’t care what South Carolina did with East Carolina or what happened when they played Texas A&M. I expect a war on Saturday.
South Carolina 20