Georgia’s championship aspirations were steered back on track Saturday against South Carolina when the Bulldogs won a game they desperately wanted to have in the SEC East race and needed to stay in the BCS title chase.
As crazy as it seems, the stakes were sky-high in only Week 2 of the season after the Bulldogs opened with a three-point road loss against a top-10 Clemson team.
Quarterback Aaron Murray threw four touchdown passes and played perhaps the finest game of his career as No. 11 Georgia withstood a No. 6 South Carolina team that didn’t go away easily in a 41-30 Bulldogs win in Sanford Stadium.
“You hate so early in the season to feel the pressure of all of your goals being on the line,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “It’s Game 2. If we lost, we weren’t out of the SEC race, obviously. We’ve been able to come back from that before, but it’s just no fun to be 0-2 and 0-1 in the league and hoping somebody gets beat and looking at the gauntlet ahead of you. It’s just very tough. It was good medicine to get a victory and I’m sure it gave our guys some confidence.”
Georgia is the first team since Syracuse in 2001 to play two top-10 teams in its first two games.
The Bulldogs (1-1, 1-0 SEC) snapped a three-game losing streak to the Gamecocks (1-1, 0-1) and avoided starting the season with two straight losses.
Only one two-loss team has ever reached the BCS title game: LSU, when it won in 2007.
“If we would have lost today, then all those dreams would have been crushed,” said linebacker Amarlo Herrera, who led Georgia with 12 tackles, forced a fumble and teamed with Ramik Wilson to make a huge fourth-quarter stop on an option pitch to Mike Davis for a 1-yard loss on a fourth-and-goal at the Georgia 1. “We’ve just got to keep rolling.”
Added Richt: ““No one flinched, everybody worked hard, everybody believed. These guys showed me something.”
Murray not only tossed four TDs, but he completed 17 of 23 passes for 309 yards with no interceptions. His numbers could have been even better if it wasn’t for a couple of drops.
“As a senior class we know what it means to lose early and then fight back out,” Murray said referring to winning 10 straight after an 0-2 start in 2011 to reach the SEC title game. “Right now we feel pretty good to be in control of our destiny right now in the East.”
Murray drew criticism in some circles for a 1-9 record against top-15 teams entering the day, but he had a big day despite Jadeveon Clowney on the other side. The star defensive end was held to one sack, two tackles for loss and three tackles.
“They kicked our tails up and down the field, we couldn’t stop them and they made a bunch of third-down conversions,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said.
South Carolina overcame 17-3 and 24-17 deficits to tie, but Georgia opened a 41-30 lead after Murray scrambled and hit a wide-open Justin Scott-Wesley at about the Bulldogs 45 and the track sprinter raced down the sideline for an 85-yard touchdown with 13 minutes to go.
“You got a chance to see his big-time speed,” Richt said of Scott-Wesley, who was a 100-and-200 meter state champion in high school.
A defense that gave up 454 yards got a stop when it needed it most when it pulled down Davis near the goal line.
“We weren’t perfect, but I did see improvements,” said defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, whose unit gave up two touchdown passes and 75 rushing yards to Connor Shaw and 149 yards and a touchdown to Davis. “They kept battling. Truthfully, we were mentally more tough than they were tonight.”
Georgia, which got 132 rushing yards from Todd Gurley on 30 carries, got the ball back with 8:28 left and ran out the clock.
“The offense played very good, the defense did enough to stop them and overall we played a pretty good game,” said left tackle Mark Beard, who subbed for Kenarious Gates in the third quarter when he went out with a right ankle injury.
Georgia players jumped up and down at the hedges near the student section afterwards in joy.
“Just celebrating, running around,” Murray said, “acting like a fool.”