As Rodrigo Blankenship’s kick sailed over the left upright, not a soul could believe that such an upset had occurred against the No. 3 team in the country. Jaycee Horn threw his South Carolina helmet into midair and raced toward Sanford Stadium’s northwest corner.
He belted out a “Let’s go!” as four of his teammates ran alongside him. Members of the support staff trampled each other in bear hugs. A couple of student trainers walked slowly in a bit of amazement with a quiet “Oh my gosh” and mouths agasp.
In front of them, a parade of garnet-clad Gamecocks headed straight for the hedges. They tore apart some hallowed hedges twig-by-twig and capped off a humiliating 20-17 loss for Georgia.
Such a moment hasn’t happened in 16 games inside those believed-to-be formidable Sanford Stadium gates. The last time the home-standing Bulldogs fell on their home turf, Georgia Tech made the hallowed hedges its souvenir shop. The Gamecocks, a 21-point underdog and a supposed longshot to compete with Georgia as a three-loss team, had the same idea.
This venture toward the Bulldogs’ iconic symbol meant the same as the last: Something felt off for Georgia.
From the opening warm-ups, Georgia didn’t look like itself. Head coach Kirby Smart admitted to it, too. He saw a strong week of practice. The Bulldogs had strong preparation for the Gamecocks, and weren’t taking their opponent — who had two wins entering play — lightly leading up to Saturday. But once the opening kickoff flew through the air, something flipped.
Maybe the dreaded noon kick served as a detriment, because Georgia hasn’t historically been strong in those games. Maybe Georgia thought its talent would take over, but Smart noted that “every team is 100 percent capable” of beating another in the conference. Throughout most points, it didn’t believe it and dropped a week-six regular season game for the second-consecutive year.
“They caught us off-guard sometimes,” offensive guard Ben Cleveland said. “They got us where it hurt.”
Georgia placed a lot of its blame on turnovers. There were four of them, and three of them were nearly unwatchable. After the offense seemed to gain a semblance of third-quarter rhythm, a botched snap squandered it in the ugliest of ways. A pick-six by Israel Mukuamu sucked all life out of a large crowd, and another interception that deflected off of Tyler Simmons’ hands cemented a no-good day for the Bulldogs.
But turnovers weren’t the only thing. Some of it was getting flat-out beat. Georgia prides its play on success at the line-of-scrimmage. An offensive line with rotation players who have NFL-ready size, and a physicality that wears down teams on a weekly basis. But the Bulldogs didn’t have it and it cost them a loss on their own turf. Smart knew it, and said “I’d love to talk about (the line dominating), too, but they’ve got to do it.”
Another red flag for Georgia: something felt off.
“It felt off because we didn’t come out as a fast-tempo team,” defensive lineman David Marshall said, who noticed the effects progressively. “We came out a little sluggish. It’s one of those games where we didn’t play hard in the first half and got out-physicaled.”
Offensively, those behind the line-of-scrimmage had trouble mustering rhythm. Georgia’s offense had its Plan A: pound the football and break an opponent’s will. Georgia tried it in repetitive fashion with power run plays on first-and-second down. Throughout regulation, the sequence occurred nine times and continued on into overtime. Even when the Bulldogs were down by one score, they opted for two consecutive up-the-middle runs by D’Andre Swift — one for five yards, the other for one.
Smart said “you try to rely on your strength” when it is the run game and offensive line. When it didn’t work, Georgia was hesitant to vastly change its plan, despite a career-high 50 passes from quarterback Jake Fromm. So, once the crowd grew frustrated and a smattering of boos turned into a chorus, it had significance.
Something felt off.
Georgia’s passing game lacked life. Of Fromm’s 50 throws, many of them were swing passes, short curl or intermediate hitch routes. None of the Bulldogs blamed it on the play-calling of offensive coordinator James Coley, and Smart dodged the inquiry about his new hire during Monday’s press conference. Georgia saw it as a lack of execution, and Fromm made some downfield throws but a lack of vertical “separation,” Smart said, in order for consistent completions.
Georgia outgained South Carolina 468-297 in the loss, but the game told a deeper story than the yardage totals. After a slow start at Tennessee, a nearly-relinquished lead against Notre Dame and failing to score a second-half touchdown at Vanderbilt, a performance full of misfortune might’ve been brewing for a while. Swift, who received a lot of those aforementioned up-the-middle carries at running back, was blunt in a call for change.
“We need to take more shots downfield,” he said. Explosive plays have been a goal of Georgia’s throughout the season. “Try to put the ball to our playmakers in space. Whoever the (coaches) think that is, think that might be, we need to do a better job of it.”
With the loss behind them, Georgia believes all of its goals lie ahead. That’s true, mathematically, as a return to the College Football Playoff can happen with an undefeated finish the rest of the way. The players aren’t afraid to say it either, and knows Georgia must win the rest. But this scenario is different than the regular-season losses at LSU (2018) and Auburn (2017). This one occurred in Sanford Stadium, and it didn’t come against a top-10 opponent or one that was on the verge of being ranked. Four of its last six — including three straight — are against ranked teams.
So, how does Georgia fix this off feeling? By attacking the remaining schedule on a weekly basis. Smart said “on to Kentucky” over 10 times in his Monday press conference. Two of the 22 questions asked pertained to the Wildcats in some fashion. He’s tired of the lingering inquiries, and became as short tempered with reporters as he has at any point this season.
Georgia knows it has the talent. All of it has to evolve into finding an identity, especially on offense, in order to return to championship contention.
First, though, is protecting the hedges from more harm.
“Oh, we’re going to have a fire under us after that tough loss,” Marshall said.