Rodrigo Blankenship sniffled through each word he spoke. His eyes nearly welled up with tears through a pair of famed goggles that hung low on his nose.
Georgia’s place-kicker stood in disbelief after a nightmarish sequence of events. After a three-play drive in which the Bulldogs failed to gain a single yard, Blankenship trotted out to try a 42-yard field goal which seemed ho-hum for a kicker with a rich track record of success. Blankenship nailed a first-quarter attempt from 50 yards, pumped his fists and screamed after nailing each touchback and had abundant confidence.
Blankenship’s toe touched leather and his kick sailed past the left upright. He hooked it by the slightest of margins. Blankenship stared at the field-goal post for a second or two as if he realized a miss actually happened. His body sunk into a doubled-over slouch, and his heart did, too.
“I didn’t do my job,” Blankenship said. “Every time I come out on this field, I want to execute on a high level. I need to do it every time my team calls my number. I didn’t do it there.”
He can’t pinpoint what went wrong for his second miss of the game — the other attempt blocked from 53 yards. Nothing was out of the ordinary, except the Sanford Stadium scoreboard. Once his kick touched the ground, Georgia (5-1, 2-1 SEC) fell to South Carolina (3-3, 2-2 SEC) 20-17 and snapped a streak of 16-consecutive home wins.
“I was down on my knees so excited that we beat the No. 3 team in the country,” South Carolina place-kicker Parker White said. “(Rodrigo is) obviously one of the best kickers in the game. Nothing but good things to say about him.”
An excruciating miss came a matter of moments after Blankenship could’ve validated his status as Bulldogs’ hero. In fact, this week of preparation opened with head coach Kirby Smart agreeing to begin a “Hot Rod For Heisman” campaign as a fun opportunity to give love to his kicker.
Blankenship receives the loudest cheer in pre-game introductions, he entered Saturday’s game 11-for-11 in field-goal tries and chants of “ROD-RIGO” bellowed throughout Sanford Stadium in the final seconds of regulation.
Georgia had possession at the Gamecocks’ 38-yard-line with eight seconds remaining. On a third-and-5 play, the Bulldogs ran another play in an attempt to improve field position for Blankenship.
“I told the coaches in pregame that my line (edge of field-goal range) was the 38,” Blankenship said. “We were right there at it. I really believe we would’ve tried it (on fourth down).”
On an incompletion to tight end Eli Wolf, Georgia was called for an illegal shift and that supposedly placed Blankenship out of his range. The attempt pre-penalty would’ve tied his 55-yarder in the Rose Bowl against Oklahoma, and many — including those engaging in the chants — lobbied for an attempt. Smart, who has experienced Auburn’s infamous “Kick Six” play while at Alabama, opted for the Hail Mary attempt to end regulation which was deflected by a South Carolina defender and never approached the end zone.
“We felt like we had to take one more chance to get five or six yards and we were going to kick it,” Smart said. “We thought we could get some more yards back but the penalty obviously killed us. Not only did we get the penalty, but we lost the play.”
Throughout the span of moments, Blankenship brought the “life of a kicker” cliche to life.
His miss was the final play in Georgia’s first defeat of the season, but it didn’t define it. The Bulldogs coughed up four turnovers. Some — well, most — of their offensive drives didn’t gain traction based on what the players called execution errors. Those woes were seen throughout the overtime period in short order by quarterback Jake Fromm’s interception — which would’ve cost Georgia the game if not for White’s miss from 33 yards out — and failing to gain a single yard on the second overtime drive (it’s a miscue that is shocking enough to be repeated).
“Rod, to me, is the best kicker in the country,” wide receiver Demetris Robertson said. “Luck wasn’t on his side on that last kick, but we didn’t do as we needed offensively to get more yards or score a touchdown.”
So, when Blankenship trudged back into the team locker room, blame wasn’t pointed at him. His teammates reiterated their support and understood the rarity of his miss.
“You can’t put all of that on Rod,” linebacker Monty Rice. “I’ve seen him make 100 field goals.”
Blankenship nearly cries because he places importance on Georgia winning games. He shouldered that burden, although unjustifiably in some regard. But when he takes the field a week later, Georgia would send him out again with a final result on the line.
And his teammates don’t foresee his head drooped toward the turf, either.
“The guy has made so many big field goals,” Smart said. “He’s meant so much to us. He gives us so much. It’s tough. You’ve got to be able to make those field goals. He knows that. But there are other games we wouldn’t have won without him.”