Georgia Bulldogs 41, South Carolina Gamecocks 37

Vince Dooley once described the 1978 tilt between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets as one of the best spectator games he’d ever seen. What he meant by that was that, while the game lacked a great deal from a coach’s perspective, it was a fun game to watch because it had a little bit of just about everything. Saturday night’s showdown with the South Carolina Gamecocks was a lot like that.

If I’d told you beforehand that the Palmetto State Poultry would score 37 points on the Red and Black, you’d have told me Georgia would have gotten run out of the building. The reverse would have been true had I told you beforehand that the Classic City Canines would put up 41 points on the Big Chickens. Instead, what we got was a typical Georgia-South Carolina game in terms of margin of victory but an exceptional Georgia-South Carolina game in terms of how we arrived at the final result.

The funny thing is, though, both extreme outcomes came fairly close to occurring. When the Gamecocks went up by ten points with five minutes remaining in what seemed to be the longest first quarter in the recorded history of college football, a home team that had yet to score an offensive point and had barely run an offensive play appeared in danger of being trounced.

Later, when the ‘Dawgs took the opening kickoff of the second half and turned it into seven points to give the Red and Black a 15-point lead, a blowout win by the Bulldogs appeared probable. At every turn, we all should have known better. It was foreordained that the contest would go down to the wire, because, all odds to the contrary, it always does.

Georgia scored its most points against South Carolina since 1995? Fine; then South Carolina would score its most points against Georgia ever, to riddle the scoreboard for a combined 78 total ticks that eclipsed every tally since the two teams collectively put up 86 points in 1970.

Spencer Lanning overcame his placekicking woes to drill five field goals? Fine; then Blair Walsh would answer with a 50-yarder in the second stanza and what proved to be a game-sealing three-pointer in the final quarter. The Gamecocks would incur eleven penalties for 98 yards? Fine; then the Bulldogs would draw 13 flags for 108 yards. (The Athenians lost one more yard on penalties than they gained rushing.)

South Carolina would run the ball 30 times and average 3.8 yards per carry? Fine; then Georgia would run the ball 29 times and average 3.7 yards per carry. South Carolina would pick up 26 first downs to Georgia’s 16? Fine; then the ‘Dawgs would offset them by converting over half of their third downs while the ‘Cocks garnered the necessary yardage on just over a third of theirs.

The game had it all, from Brandon Boykin’s exhilarating 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to a crucial blocked extra point, from a successfully-executed fake punt to a bad snap that went out the back of the end zone for a safety. Heck, Branden Smith exhibited the highest of highs and the lowest of lows all by himself, from foolishly taking out a kickoff that was buried deep in the end zone and setting up a South Carolina score with a fumble to taking a reverse 61 yards for the go-ahead touchdown.

Those of us who wondered whether Joe Cox had it in him to be a starting quarterback at this level---and I must count myself among them---received our answer. Although Cox threw an ugly interception while locking on his primary receiver with telegraphed tunnel vision not seen between the hedges since the days of Greg Talley, he nevertheless connected on 17 of 24 aerial attempts for 201 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

Likewise, those of us who wondered whether it was worth it for Steve Spurrier to continue to tolerate Stephen Garcia’s shenanigans received our answer when the Gamecock quarterback completed 31 of 53 passes for 313 yards, two touchdowns, and one acrobatic Brandon Boykin interception. Had it not been for Garcia’s ability to extend plays---had the Evil Genius fielded literally any other quarterback who has ever played for him during his time in Columbia---the ‘Dawgs would have won in a rout.

Plus, in the midst of all that, the home crowd gave perhaps the loudest ovation ever offered up in response to a routine touchback on a kickoff. No wonder they played a Dave Matthews tribute at halftime; they needed to mellow us out after all the excitement . . . although the twirler tossing flaming batons didn’t exactly help the crowd calm down. This is a good thing, since the recurring images of Georgia players in the NFL flashed up on the scoreboard clearly indicated that recruits were in the house, and I’m sure they came away impressed by the atmosphere.

It’s also a good thing that Larry Munson retired last year, because, if he had been in the booth for this one, it likely would have caused the Georgia play-by-play announcer to suffer a fatal heart attack. Predictably, the game was decided on a fourth-down play in the final 30 seconds with the Gamecocks trailing by four points and holding the ball on the Bulldogs’ seven yard line when a Garcia pass was batted down by Carolina-killer Rennie Curran. (It’s no wonder Gamecock fans would trade with us to get him on their side!)

Other than being reminded that I have an unhealthy relationship with the quarterback sack (you should not stand too close to me after a Georgia defender has taken down an opposing quarterback behind the line, lest my wild celebratory gesticulations batter you senseless), I came away from this game with my thoughts and emotions as jumbled as you would expect them to be after I spent four hours standing on my feet outdoors on a sweltering late summer night and yelling like a maniac.

I regretted the fact that Logan Gray was a complete non-factor, yet I was glad to see our Cox beat their ‘Cocks. I regretted the fact that Caleb King was sidelined by injury, but I believe we have found our starting running back in Richard Samuel. I was entirely pleased by many aspects of the Red and Black’s special teams play and thoroughly discouraged by some others. I watched an opponent score 37 points on the ‘Dawgs and came away feeling that, despite several head-scratching substitution miscues, the defense actually didn’t perform half-badly, all things considered. (Against a quarterback less mobile than Garcia---and, aside from Tim Tebow, what other quarterback Georgia faces will be as mobile as Garcia?---the Bulldog D would have been something close to dominant.)

I haven’t the first clue how this team is going to perform in Fayetteville next Saturday. I haven’t the faintest notion what to make of the fact that the team that beat Georgia last Saturday turned right around and lost to Houston. I watched the game ebb and flow as the momentum shifted, the breaks broke both ways, and flukes, misjudgments, and lightning strikes eviscerated any claim by either team that whichever squad emerged victorious could have its win attributed to mere luck, all as a game that no one imagined was forthcoming ended exactly in the way we all knew it would.

It was utterly typical and completely abnormal. It was maddening and thrilling. It gave me flashbacks to Steve Taneyhill’s last-second touchdown in 1993 and fell just short of reminding me that 0-2 is twice as bad as 0-1, but it allowed in the sort of sliver of hope that can crowd out doubts and confirmed that 1-1 is only half as bad as 0-1.

The Georgia Bulldogs have a long way to go before they can claim to be a good football team, but it is now possible to believe they have a shot at getting there. It may be worth sticking it out for the 2009 season, after all.

Go ‘Dawgs!

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