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South Carolina 16, Georgia 12

Three familiar axioms of football are these:

  1. Offense sells tickets but defense wins games.
  2. Games more often are lost by the losers than won by the winners.
  3. Things are never as good as they seem or as bad as they seem.
In Sanford Stadium last night, we witnessed a confirmation of the first, an exception to the second, and a reminder of the third.

I was put in mind of Mark Richt's final game as the offensive coordinator for Florida State. The Seminoles were favored in the national championship game against an undefeated but underrated Oklahoma squad. Because F.S.U. was expected to win, the popular perception during the game was that the 'Noles, and Chris Weinke in particular, had a bad game.

In retrospect, when we examined the season as a whole, it became clear that, in fact, the Sooners were better than advertised and it wasn't so much that Weinke and F.S.U. played poorly as it was that O.U., and especially its defense, played extremely well.

So it was with last night's outing between the hedges. We knew going in that South Carolina's defensive front would prove more daunting than Oklahoma State's, but we failed adequately to appreciate how great the disparity would be. Most of the difficulties the 'Dawgs encountered over the course of the contest were indicative less of poor play by the home team than of a stellar performance by the visitors.

Let us give credit where credit is due. Both teams came to play; I did not see a lack of effort or desire on either side of the ball for either opponent. It wasn't a matter of one team "wanting it more." It was a matter of two defenses outperforming the offenses opposite them, with one defense ultimately playing just a little bit better---just enough better---than the other.

It was, in short, a typical Georgia-South Carolina game . . . low-scoring, hard-hitting, and close. When two teams play one another evenly, year in and year out, one team cannot get the better of the other every time.

Statistically, the contest was absolutely a dead heat. The Gamecocks had 21 first downs to Georgia's 20. South Carolina gained 4.8 yards per play, as compared to the Bulldogs' 4.5 yards per snap. Each team averaged 4.1 yards per rush. The competing squads incurred half a dozen penalties apiece. Had the Palmetto State Poultry had custody of the football for 34 fewer seconds, the time of possession would have been exactly equal. The game's only turnover merely sealed the deal; it did not produce points and it is doubtful that it altered the outcome.

It is hard to complain about a Red and Black D that allowed the opposition to convert just one of 11 third downs and conceded 314 yards of total offense. (The 'Dawgs actually outperformed the opposition in this regard, as Georgia tallied 341 yards of total offense and converted three of 18 third downs.) The Classic City Canines outscored the opposition in the second half, 9-6, although this is little solace, for obvious reasons.

Matthew Stafford performed better than the box score would indicate, completing 19 of 44 passes for 213 yards but having several catchable balls dropped. There is no question that the receiving corps, while talented, remains an area of concern, as Sean Bailey and Tripp Chandler epitomized the inconsistency of the Georgia offensive attack, which looked brilliant at times and anemic at others.

Once again, though, I attribute much of this to the quality of the opposition, which applied pressure throughout the game. The Gamecocks did their job well enough on defense that it disrupted the Bulldogs' ability to do their job effectively with regularity on offense. That said, I didn't care for the repeated attempted use of trick plays, which took too much time to develop, did not work all night, and ranged between ineffectual at best and disastrous at worst. In an S.E.C. slugfest, Mike Bobo needs to avoid getting cute and focus on fundamental football.

The other quarrel I have with last night's offensive play-calling regards the decision to try another field goal deep in Carolina territory rather than go for the end zone. I understand the strategy---down by seven points with a little under five minutes remaining in the game, Mark Richt was trying to put the team in a position to win it, rather than tie it, with a touchdown---but a seven-play, 31-yard drive that could have given the 'Dawgs all of the momentum instead seemed like an ineffectual capitulation to the inevitable.

At the end of the day, it comes down to this: South Carolina was the better team last night. I add the qualifier "last night" because I would be shocked if the Gamecocks finished the season with a better record than the 'Dawgs and I do not doubt that, if these two teams met again six weeks hence, Georgia would win.

That first assertion currently is speculative, however, and the second is entirely hypothetical, which leaves us with the reality that we have, and that reality is this: on September 8, 2007, as on September 8, 2001, a Georgia team that could not score a touchdown against the Gamecocks in a night game between the hedges did not, and did not deserve to, win the football game.

It was a tough night in every respect. The impact of the pregame scoreboard videos was lessened by audio difficulties. Whoever owns the season ticket seat to my immediate right treasonously allowed his ducat to fall into the hands of a South Carolina fan who embodied the worst of the Gamecock fan base (which has the league's least favorable ratio of arrogance to achievement) and confirmed that, if a fish rots from the head down, there is no more effective method for attaining spoilage than placing Steve Spurrier at the pinnacle of your football program. I accidentally left my binoculars in the stadium when I departed and, for reasons passing understanding, the folks running the show in the North Campus Parking Deck did what they did after the 2001 South Carolina game, refusing to allow traffic to exit onto Jackson Street and thereby lengthening the travel time it took to get out onto an actual road.

It was a bad night in Athens, but that does not mean that the evening was without its bright spots. The placekicking got better as the game went on, as the last two kickoffs very nearly reached the end zone after seven quarters' worth of kickoffs that made it only as far as the 10 yard line. Mikey Henderson continues to make good decisions as a return man.

For all of Georgia's youth up front, the defense is getting the job done, however maddening it may have been on a couple of South Carolina's series. The fact is that the Bulldog D held high-octane Oklahoma State to 14 points and surrendered 16 to Steve Spurrier. That kind of defense will keep a team in a lot of games, particularly in light of the way Willie Martinez's charges have started to clamp down in the second half, mirroring a Brian VanGorder trademark.

Offensively, it may feel like it's time to go back to the drawing board, but remember the third axiom offered at the outset . . . things weren't as good as they seemed after the game against the Pokes, nor are they as bad as they seem after the game against the 'Cocks. Perhaps no team in the country faced a tougher one-two punch straight out of the gate than the Bulldogs and the Red and Black came away with a 1-1 record that included one solid victory and one narrow loss.

The offensive line will improve with experience and it is open to debate whether Georgia will face a tougher defensive front between now and November 24. There were flashes of excellence, however intermittent, in the passing game (where Mohamed Massaquoi showed hints of returning to his freshman form) and Knowshon Moreno's 104 yards on 14 carries against a talented front seven set up to stop the run bodes well for the Bulldogs over the course of the campaign.

While there certainly is plenty of room for constructive criticism of Georgia's performance, this game is more about giving credit than assigning blame. We should congratulate South Carolina on its victory in a well-coached, well-played game of football that the Gamecocks deserved to win . . . then the Bulldogs should turn their attention to getting back on track against Western Carolina in preparation for their September 22 showdown with the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa.

Last night marked the Palmetto State Poultry's 14th series victory over the Red and Black in 60 tries. For the record, Georgia has not lost to Alabama in any season in which the Classic City Canines also lost to South Carolina since 1958 . . . and, in one of the years in which the Bulldogs beat 'Bama but fell to the Gamecocks (1959), Fran Tarkenton led his team to a 10-1 record, an Orange Bowl victory, and a Southeastern Conference championship.

Keep the faith, Bulldog Nation. There is a lot of football left to be played. No team in the league is invulnerable and South Carolina, a program that has had one 10-win season and one conference championship in its whole history, has games left at L.S.U., at Tennessee, at Arkansas, and against Florida.

Georgia isn't the frontrunner, but Georgia isn't out of it, either, and, if there was one team in the S.E.C. East you had to rely on to stumble somewhere along the line, wouldn't you rather it be South Carolina than Florida or Tennessee?

Go 'Dawgs!