ATHENS, Ga. — To call it a game they had no business winning would be a disservice. South Carolina played night-and-day different from what it showed in its first five games during a stunning 20-17 double-overtime win over No. 3 Georgia Saturday.
Where were these Gamecocks in that awful opening loss to North Carolina? And in a listless defeat at Missouri? No way those teams beat Georgia.
Those teams weren’t Saturday’s team. Saturday’s Gamecocks team didn’t tiptoe into a fluke win. It earned every bit of it by being the better team.
Takeaways from a season-saving victory:
1. You. Shall. Not. Pass!
The Gamecocks’ defense would not be moved. It looked well-coached, executed even better and refused to wear down.
Georgia’s playbook is relatively simple. USC knew it, like all of Georgia’s opponents know it.
But the Gamecocks were the only ones who stopped it. Did it shock anyone else to remember that there were only seven points scored in the entire second half?
USC held Georgia’s running game under 200 yards. They put Jake Fromm on his back three times when he’d only been sacked once all season coming in.
They got four turnovers, three from Israel Mukuamu turning Fromm into a punchline. They blocked a field goal, had six tackles for loss and never wilted, even when Ryan Hilinski’s injury derailed USC’s offense.
Then when they had that double-overtime lead and Georgia had the ball, knowing a touchdown ended it, a defense that had already been on the field for 92 snaps didn’t give up a single inch.
That’s the kind of defense Will Muschamp thought he had in the preseason, but missed tackles and an underperforming secondary undermined it. The new base 4-3 alignment, not depending so much on a nickel back, has reshaped and refocused the entire unit.
That’s a defense that can win the second half of the season.
2. The Yardage Boys
Say this for the offense — it’s adjusting to some bad situations.
The plan was working, even when the Gamecocks pledged to run the ball and came out not running on their first three plays. Hilinski looked the best he has since Alabama and Rico Dowdle had a very solid 79 yards on 21 carries.
When Hilinski went down (and no, neither Muschamp nor I didn’t think it was dirty; it looked to me like the guy tripped and fell into Hilinski’s leg), that forced offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon and Muschamp to shift gears.
Before the “Muschamp’s going conservative!” missives started being fired into the Web, I pointed out USC didn’t have much choice. Dakereon Joyner, as inspiring as his presence on this team is, was third-string quarterback for a reason. Re: he’s not the best passer.
Georgia knew it and loaded the box, daring USC to run. USC just had to hold on and not make any mistakes, and it was able to do that.
A couple of play calls (passing on third-and-2 with Joyner on the field?) that could have been different, but overall, a fine adjustment. This will be something to keep an eye on if Hilinski has to miss any significant time, but Muschamp said Sunday Hilinski is expected to start Saturday.
3. Flag line
Eleven penalties for 68 yards. At least five false starts, including on a fourth-and-1 where sixth-year senior Donell Stanley flinched.
They ultimately didn’t matter, but how many of them could have? Muschamp said Jammie Robinson’s defensive holding penalty was deserved (I thought it was questionable at best) and that begat the tying touchdown.
Many complained of home cooking on that one. I thought the previous one, where the field judge 20 yards behind the play chucked a flag on Mukuamu for interference, reeked of favoritism.
The crowd booed, and the ref catered to it. Terrible.
4. Papered up
They’ve been playing great all season, but Bryan Edwards and Javon Kinlaw further impressed NFL scouts on Saturday. Yes, those two are playing to get themselves noticed by the next level, but how many times have we seen other college players sit down to preserve their health so they can make their money at that next level?
Muschamp’s tale about trying to sit Kinlaw down three times and the monstrous defensive tackle telling him to mind his business is a perfect illustration. The big man wanted to be out there with his team, to help it win, while Edwards, as he always does, quietly turned in another amazing performance.
5. Out of the pit, back in the race
There were many who probably thought USC would be 3-3 after Georgia. Alabama, Missouri and the Bulldogs seemed likely losses.
However they got there, USC is 3-3. So everything’s in front of them.
They’ll host a Florida team which I thought they had a chance to beat before the season, and I didn’t change my mind even when USC started so badly. It will be tremendously difficult, as Florida’s defense is amazing and the offense seems to have settled in despite rotating two quarterbacks, but the Gamecocks at least get that game at home.
They need three wins for a bowl game. They have Florida, dreadful Tennessee and Vanderbilt teams, a game at middling Texas A&M and then Appalachian State before the big one on Nov. 30. Lot worse places to be.
It’s fitting USC pulled off this particular upset to give itself a new lease on the year. Georgia’s Dominick Blaylock is the son of former NBA veteran Mookie Blaylock. He was famous for a lot of reasons, one being a band from Seattle liked his name so much they wanted to use it as their band name.
They couldn’t because of copyright laws, so they changed their name to Pearl Jam. Their most well-known hit?
6. But it worked
That’s the best thing anyone can say about a game. Play bad, nearly screw up, make a mistake but still win … hey, it worked.
There were some really curious play-calls that could have easily swung that game Georgia’s way.
Fourth-and-3 in a tie game, 40 seconds to go on Georgia’s 40-yard line. Punting’s probably out of the question because of how short the field is, and the Gamecocks couldn’t afford to give Georgia the ball back at that spot, knowing they had too much time and an All-American kicker.
Go for it and don’t get it, at least the field is probably a little bit longer, and there’s more time off the clock. Kick the field goal, you’re up three points.
Problem is, the Gamecocks chose to kick a 57-yard field goal with a guy who has never, not once, hit a 50-yarder.
Nothing against Parker White, who’s very accurate on what he can hit, but he hasn’t hit any 50-yarders. Yet Muschamp sent him out there and then said he has the leg (maybe, as his 49-yarder earlier was plenty long enough); he’s made them before (which he hasn’t in a game); and he’d make the same decision again (what?)
Fourth-and-1 in the second overtime, got to take the points there, even though White had just missed a 33-yarder that would have won it. Got to kick with Georgia having the ball next and Rodrigo Blankenship kicking.
Muschamp went for it, Dowdle picked it up, then USC kicked when a third-and-goal at the 2 was destroyed by Georgia’s Tyler Clark. White hit, Blankenship missed, go crazy, folks.
To be fair, Georgia coach Kirby Smart decided to run a play in a tie game with eight seconds left instead of kicking a 55-yard game-winning field goal (a chancy attempt, but Blankenship has hit from that distance before). The Bulldogs illegally shifted, making Georgia go for it instead of trying a 60-yarder.
Hey, it worked.
7. The head man
Who knows what Muschamp’s job status really was after the UNC and Missouri losses? Ray Tanner said he was as confident in his coach as the day he hired him, and it’s not like Tanner was ever going to make a move mid-season.
Yet this win buys Muschamp all sorts of time.
The season’s results were expected to be middling due to the schedule. Muschamp just beat one of the teams that was considered a definite loss on that schedule. If he steers the Gamecocks to a bowl game, especially with the QB injuries, that’s progress, that’s moving forward, that’s showing everyone it was always the right hire.
Again, nobody’s sure of what would have happened if this season spiraled out of control, but if that question never has to be answered, that’s a great outcome.