Less than a minute into No. 3 Georgia’s 41-17 rout of South Carolina on Saturday, Deandre Baker grabbed an interception after Gamecocks quarterback Jake Bentley’s pass bounced off the hands of wideout Rico Dowdle and saw nothing but green grass in front of him. Baker sprinted down the sideline, taking the ball all the way into the end zone for the Bulldogs’ first score of the game.
Well, almost all the way at least.
Video replay appeared to show that Baker actually dropped the ball about a foot in front of the goal line before any part of it broke the plane. Luckily for Georgia, linebacker Juwan Taylor was paying attention.
Taylor swooped in from behind to pick up the live ball in the end zone, guaranteeing the score.
“It was like an immediate reaction,” Taylor said of the play. “Something didn’t look right, so let me just scoop it up just in case.”
Although Baker was originally given credit for the score, the decision was later amended, and Taylor’s quick thinking was rewarded with the touchdown.
It was the first defensive touchdown he has scored in his football career according to him — high school included. And while normally the play would have been an exciting milestone for Taylor, the circumstances surrounding it never gave him much of a chance for celebration.
In fact, he didn’t even realize the meaning of his actions until a teammate told him after the game was over.
“I thought I just scooped it up to hand it to the ref or something,” he said.
Taylor was happy to have made the play. Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, on the other hand, was displeased that it was ever necessary.
“Obviously I was disappointed that [Baker] would do that prior to crossing the goal line,” Smart said. “I think it’s an effect of not having many opportunities to do that.”
Smart added that Baker would “get some extra practice doing it” in the week leading up to the team’s next matchup against Middle Tennessee. But what Smart was undoubtedly less upset about was the way Taylor and the rest of Bulldog linebackers performed against the Gamecocks.
Taylor, Montee Rice and Natrez Patrick took most of the snaps at Georgia’s least battle-tested position following the departure of last year’s Butkus Award winner and 8th overall pick of the Chicago Bears, Roquan Smith. The trio combined for 15 total tackles Saturday, while Taylor and Rice each notched a pass breakup as well, and Taylor scored the defensive touchdown.
As a whole, the defense doesn’t seem to have skipped a beat. Though the season is still young, Georgia ranks at No. 11 in total defense in the country and second in the SEC.
And as long as the members of that defense hold onto interceptions and recovered fumbles all the way into the end zone moving forward, Georgia’s upward defensive trend seems likely to continue.
“I would say that the whole defense has improved,” Taylor said. “Everybody has bought in to what coach Smart wants us to do.”