Bulldogs survive SEC shootout

ATHENS — It wasn’t pretty, and it was far from perfect. It wasn’t the low-scoring, defensive battle Georgia expected, and the big plays barely outnumbered the demoralizing ones.

It was an offensive shootout in which the Bulldogs’ offense barely saw the field for an entire quarter. It was a high-scoring affair defined by one crucial defensive stop. In short, it was one of the strangest games linebacker Rennie Curran can remember and one of the biggest wins of his career.

“This was a street fight,” Curran said. “There’s no other way to put it. I feel like we took a couple punches, but we wiped the blood off and kept on rolling.”

Georgia rebounded from its first opening-week loss in 13 years with a grueling 41-37 win over South Carolina that bucked precedent and sparked a crucial change in the momentum of the Bulldogs’ season.

Following a week of near constant criticism, quarterback Joe Cox turned in an admirable performance, completing 17-of-24 passes for 201 yards and two touchdowns, while Brandon Boykin set a school record with a 100-yard kickoff return for a score and Curran once again thwarted a last-ditch comeback attempt by the Gamecocks to preserve the win.

“It’s always good to get the train rolling,” Cox said. “Momentum’s tough to get going, but after you get that first game, you’ve got something to build on. We needed this more than anything.”

Georgia mustered just 10 points in a loss to Oklahoma State a week ago, and a barrage of criticism followed. Cox was reportedly close to being benched earlier in the week thanks to a shoulder injury, head coach Mark Richt and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo came under fire for engineering an anemic offensive performance, and the Bulldogs were on the brink of an 0-2 start. The mood was somber, at best.

“They were down,” Richt said. “I think everybody was just in the tank and I wasn’t feeling real good either.”

A fast start by South Carolina did little to lift the Bulldogs’ spirits. The Gamecocks recovered an A.J. Green fumble to set up a touchdown, then scored again on their next two possessions. It was 17-7 before Georgia’s offense was able to run its third play of the game.

“We just wanted to get on the field,” Cox said. “We had guys over there just stretching and kind of looking around at each other saying, ‘This is the weirdest game I’ve ever been in.’ ”

When Cox and company finally got their chance, however, they made the most of it.

Boykin’s kick return had kept Georgia in the game, then Cox engineered consecutive scoring drives, capped by a 61-yard run by Branden Smith on a reverse to regain the lead, 21-17.

South Carolina hung tough, thanks to a strong performance by quarterback Stephen Garcia, who completed 31-of-53 passes for 313 yards and two touchdowns, and kicker Spencer Lanning, who drilled five field goals in the game.

Georgia’s red-zone defense was stout, however, and the Bulldogs held South Carolina without a touchdown throughout the second half until linebacker Eric Norwood picked off a Cox pass and returned it for a touchdown with 12:56 left in the fourth quarter.

The ensuing point-after attempt was blocked by DeAngelo Tyson, however, and Cox emerged with another drive to take the Bulldogs into field-goal range. Kicker Blair Walsh hit his second kick of the game to put Georgia up by four with 6:20 to play, but the fireworks weren’t over.

The Gamecocks drove 74 yards to the Georgia 7 and had four chances to score in the game’s final seconds. Garcia’s final throw was broken up by Curran, the second time in two seasons that the Georgia linebacker thwarted a comeback attempt inside the 10-yard line in the final minute.

“There’s something about this game and the goal line, I’m just always there in the right place at the right time,” Curran said. “It feels good though.”

The victory was hard-earned, Richt said, and that was the biggest reward.

Richt joked that he had recorded the game, and he assumed he’d go home and watch it a few times. He knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep.

There were good moments, and there were plenty of problems, too. But his team played with a sense of urgency Richt said he couldn’t ever recall seeing before.

Just another fond memory from a game he won’t soon forget.

“There was a special energy,” Richt said. “I don’t know why. Maybe there was a special sense of urgency at not going 0-2, knowing we’re at home, knowing it was the SEC. There was so many things riding on it, and for whatever reason I think our boys had as much heart and fire, wire to wire, that I’ve ever seen.”