ATHENS -- Aaron Murray had a big game in a big game. Todd Gurley was his usual self. Justin Scott-Wesley was very fast.
And the Georgia defense had a very rough game, but it came up big when it needed to.
The end result: No. 11 Georgia essentially saved its season and put itself back in the national spotlight for a good reason with a 41-30 win over No. 6 South Carolina.
When it ended, players walked off the field to cheers at Sanford Stadium, the memory of last week’s loss at Clemson pushed way back and a three-game losing streak to the Gamecocks now extinguished.
The season is back on.
“It’s just like last week ... well it happened, but it doesn’t matter,” junior receiver Michael Bennett said. “We control our destiny now. If we win the rest of our games, we’re gonna get to where we wanna go.”
Head coach Mark Richt summed up his team’s response to the opening loss this way by saying, “No one flinched. Everyone worked hard; everyone believed. These guys showed me something.”
But mostly it was the offense that showed something.
Murray was pretty much perfect, racking up 309 passing yards and throwing for four touchdowns, including twice by rolling out of the pocket and finding an open receiver. He never turned the ball over.
“He played the game of his life,” Bennett said. “I was telling him throughout the game. He really came up and played his butt off and prepared all week, and it showed (Saturday).”
Gurley was also near-dominant, rushing for 132 yards and a touchdown and along with fellow tailback Keith Marshall (58 yards on seven carries), helped Georgia dominate time of possession, especially in the decisive second half.
Scott-Wesley had one of the game’s key plays, an 85-yard touchdown catch.
And Georgia’s beleaguered offensive line had a comeback game, holding South Carolina star Jadeveon Clowney in check. The key stat of the game might have been Georgia’s performance on third downs. It converted 6-of-14, including two touchdowns on third-and-long.
“It was amazing. You know that’s lunch for a D-end and a pass rush,” Scott-Wesley said. “And I feel like we countered those guys out. We did a great job with Clowney, man, and we just made plays.”
Finally, there was Georgia’s defense, which struggled for much of the game and ended up yielding 454 yards. But it forced a decisive turnover and then held firm on fourth down late in the game.
Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham was feeling a bit brash afterwards.
“Truthfully, we were mentally more tough than they were,” Grantham said. “We kept playing and could have kept playing. So we showed more physical toughness than the team we played.”
The game turned on a play early in the third quarter.
Connor Shaw scrambled and got past the first-down marker, but the ball came out at the end of the run. A replay confirmed that the ball barely came out before Shaw’s knee hit the ground.
So instead of a South Carolina first down inside the 20, it was Georgia’s first big break of the game. And it did something with it right away.
On a beautifully designed-and-executed screen, Keith Marshall caught a short pass and rumbled 48 yards, not going down until the Gamecocks’ 27.
Two plays later, a Gurley run and a personal foul penalty put Georgia at the 11. But the Bulldogs went backward, leaving no choice but to try a 37-yard field goal by Patrick Beless, the walk-on kicking in place of the suspended Marshall Morgan.
Beless nailed it, and Georgia led again with 23 minutes left in the game.
Georgia’s defense got off the field, helped when Gamecocks receiver Bruce Ellington lost track of a third-down pass because of the sun.
Georgia took over and pounded the run down the field. Then it was Murray’s turn, with another assist from Gurley.
Georgia faced third-and-goal from the 8-yard line. Left tackle Kenarious Gates was hurt on the previous play. Murray took the snap and rolled right, escaping the pocket. He saw Gurley moving, and just as he was about to be clobbered, Murray hurled the ball into the side of the end zone, where Gurley hauled it in.
“My boy Malcolm (Mitchell), I told him I’d hold him down, so I got that touchdown pass for him,” Gurley said.
That gave Georgia some breathing room, but the Gamecocks responded immediately, thanks to Mike Davis. First the tailback went 75 yards, then on third down, be barreled into the end zone from 3 yards out
But the extra point missed, leaving Georgia’s lead at 34-30.
Three plays later came the play of the game.
The Bulldogs faced third-and-13 from their 15. Murray rolled left this time, with Clowney bearing down on him. But downfield, Scott-Wesley was wide open.
Murray saw him, and hurled the ball his way. Scott-Wesley hauled it in around midfield. He had one man to beat, and Scott-Wesley turned on the track speed, outrunning the defender and finishing off the 85-yard touchdown.
“I was just out there,” Scott-Wesley said. “You could’ve thrown a grenade out there and nobody would’ve died but me.”
So it was back on Georgia’s defense, which appeared set to give up another score. But when South Carolina got near the goal line, this time the Bulldogs stiffened. On fourth-and-goal from the 1, the ball was handed to Davis, and the line held, stopping him for a loss of a yard.
“If it’s fourth and a yard-and-a-half, and they choose to put the ball on the perimeter like that, then I’ll take that,” Grantham said. “I’ll take that all day.”
From there Georgia’s offense just pounded the ball and put the game away.
“You hate to so early in the season of feel the pressure of all your goals being on the line. It was game two,” Richt said. “If we lost, we weren’t out of the SEC race; obviously, we’ve come back from that before. But it’s just no fun to be 0-2. ... It was good medicine to get a victory. I’m sure it gave our guys some confidence as a team.”