COLUMBIA, S.C. — Georgia coach Mark Richt had seen enough games with South Carolina to know how the second-ranked Bulldogs would have to win it.
“Our defense knew it was going to have to rise up,” he said.
That they did, again and again and again in the fourth quarter. The third-ranked Bulldogs (3-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) forced two turnovers near the goal line, along with stopping South Carolina on downs to hold on to a 14-7 victory Saturday.
The win not only kept Georgia’s championship hopes on track — remember last year when an early 16-12 loss to the Gamecocks ultimately cost them their title hopes — it showcased the latest group of gnarly, junkyard ‘Dawgs ready to make the biggest plays at the most important times.
“They’re a great defense,” Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “They’ve been making plays for us ever since I’ve been here and I knew they’d do the same.”
And they have a history of doing that against the Gamecocks (1-2, 0-2) at Williams-Brice Stadium.
In 2002, Georgia recovered two South Carolina fumbles inside the 5 and had defensive end David Pollock’s remarkable TD swipe in the end zone to win 13-7. Then two years ago, the Bulldogs forced a fumble in the end zone and stopped a fourth down near the goal line to hand coach Steve Spurrier just his second ever college shutout in an 18-0 win.
Just like Richt figured, this one came down to Georgia’s defenders, too.
The Bulldogs were ahead 14-7 and were facing a frantic South Carolina team eager to end a five-game SEC losing streak.
Quarterback Chris Smelley moved the Gamecocks 64 yards to Georgia’s 2 when linebacker Rennie Curran smacked the ball free from leaping runner Mike Davis. Cornerback Asher Allen were there to recover.
Moments later, South Carolina forced a punt and Brian Mimbs booted it 77 yards to the Gamecock 11. “I thought the game was over,” Richt said.
The defense still had work left to do, though.
This time, the Gamecocks pushed the ball to Georgia’s 31 before Smelley threw incomplete on fourth down with 3:32 to go.
Once more, Georgia’s offense had the chance to put things away and once more, it couldn’t
South Carolina started on its 9 with 1:42 left.
“Coach told us, get ready to get back on the field and we were ready,” safety Reshad Jones said.
The Gamecocks opened with a 30-yard pass from Smelley to Moe Brown, while the Bulldogs were called for two pass-interference penalties that kept the drive going.
Georgia’s D would prevail, Jones intercepting Smelley only steps from the goal line with 13 seconds remaining.
“Offense they was clicking, but they weren’t clicking like they’re used to,” defensive tackle Corvey Irvin said. “When they’re slow, we’ve got to back them up.”
Most of the spotlight this season has fallen on Georgia’s offensive stars, like quarterback Stafford and dynamo runner Knowshon Moreno.
Some wondered what might happen if Moreno was held off his game, 79 yards on 20 carries, or Stafford struggled in the pocket, as he did against the Gamecocks with four sacks.
“When you play in a hot, muggy, miserable day against the type of resistence we came up against, we just weren’t sharp,” Richt said. “We were our own worst enemy a few times. But we overcame it and we’re 1-0 in the Southeastern Conference.”
The Bulldogs know how important that is. Last year, they lost their league opener to these Gamecocks, 16-12, a defeat that ultimately cost Georgia a chance at the SEC or national title.
In winning their 10th straight game, the Bulldogs showed the rest of the SEC on Saturday they’re more complete than some thought.
The road won’t be easy. Georgia travels to Arizona State next Saturday. Then there are games with Alabama and Tennessee.
“This is over now,” Irvin said. “We just got to go back, correct our mistakes and get ready for Arizona State. We got another big one on the road, and we’ll see if we have an answer for that.”
So far, the Bulldogs have had the answer to whatever they’ve faced. Against South Carolina, Georgia’s defense made sure of that.