South Carolina Gamecocks 45, Georgia Bulldogs 42: The Spirit Is Willing, Though the Flesh Got Beat

I arrived in Sanford Stadium for my 25th consecutive home opener fully expecting the Georgia Bulldogs to lose to the defending SEC East champion South Carolina Gamecocks. I was right. I expected to exit Sanford Stadium at 0-2 feeling twice as bad as I felt at 0-1. I was wrong.

What made last weekend so dismal an experience wasn’t the loss per se; it was the fact that, while the Boise St. Broncos played every bit like a top five team, the Red and Black didn’t look in the least like a top 20 team. What made last weekend so dismal was the fact that Georgia seemed so little improved over last year, coupled with the fact that Boise State was able to do what it did methodically and repeatedly, creating a template we had no reason to believe would not work against the Bulldogs in game after game, producing loss after loss.

My trip to Athens on Saturday afternoon produced a very different experience. Rather than see the Red and Black routed, I saw the ‘Dawgs lead in first downs (23-15), total offense (436-395), passing yards (248-142), and time of possession (30:58-29:02). Last week was frustrating because the winner demonstrably was the better team; this week was frustrating because the winner wasn’t verifiably superior.

One week after appearing woefully unprepared for their season opener, the Bulldog athletes were not outplayed, and the Georgia staff was not outcoached. One week after seeming indifferent to the challenge of playing a Mountain West opponent, this team and its coaches appeared very committed to winning an SEC football game.

While the Gamecocks’ biggest plays were far from flukes, they were very unlike the slants and screens that the Broncos made look so easy that I feared we would see them executed successfully by every competent opponent all season long. A freaky week here at the blog culminated in an appropriately freaky game; whereas last week’s outing produced fears, this week’s generated phobias.

It is one thing to worry whether we will be able to stop a crossing route without Alec Ogletree; that is a real concern. What, though, is the realistic risk of another two-turnover day by Aaron Murray, or of a touchdown run on a fake punt, or an opposing quarterback running for his life on a busted play hooking up on the ugliest rainbow of a desperation heave into the end zone since Jared Lorenzen was terrorizing the secondaries and all-you-can eat buffets of the Southeastern Conference?

Unlike the persistent deficiencies that defined the loss to Boise State, the readily replicable aspects of the loss to South Carolina largely broke in the Bulldogs’ favor. That is true because this also is true: If you took away the 20 worst plays from the Boise State game, the Broncos still would have beaten the Bulldogs . . . but, if you took away any one of the worst six plays from the South Carolina game, the Bulldogs would have beaten the Gamecocks.

The Palmetto State Poultry had 15 possessions, eight of which ended either in an interception or a punt. Only one South Carolina drive lasted longer than six plays, and only two lasted longer than three minutes. The Classic City Canines had four drives of longer than six plays, all of which took more than three minutes off of the clock. On the whole, this was as well-called and well-executed an offensive game as we have seen from the ‘Dawgs since the 2009 Georgia Tech game. The Georgia team we saw last weekend wouldn’t beat anyone who was any good; the Georgia team we saw this weekend had a distinct shot at beating a top twelve team, and will have a distinct shot at beating many other teams along the way.

No, we are not into moral victories, and, yes, the hot seat justifiably remains hot. Improvement ultimately must translate into victory, and it had better do so in a heck of a hurry if this season is to be salvaged and this coaching staff is to be saved, but we saw tonight the anticipated improvement we did not see in the season opener.

So tell me we gave up 45 points, but don’t tell me the defense didn’t get after their asses. Tell me this team lacks a victory, but don’t tell me this team lacks heart. Tell me Aaron Murray is in a sophomore slump, but don’t tell me he didn’t give his all. Tell me Mark Richt deserves to be fired, but don’t tell me the man who called that surprise onside kick doesn’t care. (Yeah, it was negated by an offsides penalty, but, after criticizing last week’s fourth-and-ten touchdown for being a bad call that worked, I’m not going to criticize a surprise onside kick that was a good call that didn’t work.)

I know what it felt like in the fourth quarter in the Liberty Bowl on New Year’s Eve, because I was there. I know what it felt like in the fourth quarter in the Georgia Dome on Labor Day weekend, because I was there. I know what it felt like in the fourth quarter in Sanford Stadium on Saturday night, because I was there. I was, I suppose you could say, in the arena . . . and I’m telling you that this game did not feel like those games.

So tell me you’re disappointed, but don’t tell me you’re discouraged. Tell me I have no cause for faith, but don’t tell me I have no reason for hope. Tell me you wish the glass was more full, but don’t tell me the glass is half-empty.

Go ‘Dawgs!

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