ATHENS, Ga. – The loud crash you heard here Saturday at Dooley Field at Sanford Stadium was third-ranked Georgia tumbling from the ranks of the undefeated.
On a day when the Bulldogs had difficulty scoring touchdowns and also on a day when they uncharacteristically turned the football over four times, Kirby Smart’s team went under 20-17 at the hands of the heavy underdog South Carolina Gamecocks in a contest that took two overtimes to decide.
Georgia, limited to a sole early second-quarter touchdown by D’Andre Swift before finally catching the Gamecocks at 17-17 via a 6-yard scoring pass from Jake Fromm to Demetris Robertson in the back of the end zone (capping a brilliant 96-yard drive) with just 1:48 left to play in regulation, was given ample chance to win the game in the final seconds of the fourth quarter as well as the extra periods.
After South Carolina place-kicker Parker White missed on a 57-yard field goal attempt to win it, the Bulldogs took possession at their own 40 with but 40 tics of the clock left. Fromm’s passing, sandwiched around an 8-yard run by Swift, hurriedly marched the Bulldogs down to the Carolina 38-yard line but two Fromm incompletions then a costly 5-yard illegal shift penalty backed Georgia up to their own 43-yard stripe. Fromm’s final throw then likewise fell incomplete as the regulation clock ran down.
The decision by the Georgia coaching staff not to give Rodrigo Blankenship the opportunity to win the game with a 60-yard field goal – which would have matched Kevin Butler’s 1983 school record – rather than having Fromm try deep shots to the end zone brought howls of disapproval from the 92,000-plus Bulldog fans in attendance.
“We had time,” said Smart. “We had 13 seconds, I think it was, at the time. We had a play call to work the sideline. We were going to work the sideline like we do every week. We were going to work the sideline and try to get five more yards, six more yards. Jake always does a good job of making those decisions. We throw it away or get him out of bounds. We thought the 38-yard line, it was a long, long field goal, but it was a shot to make it. We felt like we had to take one more chance to get five or six yards, and we were going to kick it. We were not going to kick with 13 seconds. No. 1, 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. When you lost the play and you get the penalty, now you’re forced with three seconds left to kick a 60-yarder or try a Hail Mary.”
Still, as the game swung into the first overtime knotted at 17-17 Georgia, which had been outplayed by Will Muschamp’s Gamecocks most of the game, would have the chances to avoid this costly upset.
The Bulldogs, up to bat first at the 25-yard line going toward the East end zone, got a 4-yard run from Swift before Fromm’s pass was deflected and picked off by South Carolina. It was the third interception of the afternoon thrown by the normal pin-point passing Fromm, one of them being a costly 53-yard pick-six by Gamecock defensive back Israel Mukuamu with just a minute left until halftime.
But again, Georgia’s hopes were kept alive minutes later when the Gamecocks, taking their turn at the 25-yard line, were held to nine yards in three snaps by the Bulldog defense and Carolina’s White misfired on the chance to win it when his 33-yard field goal attempt sailed wide right.
Then came the dramatic second overtime stanza.
Possessing the ball first this time, backup quarterback Dakereon Joyner, who replaced Gamecock starter Ryan Hilinski when Hilinski went down with a leg injury in the third quarter, drove South Carolina down to the Georgia 2-yard line. A Gamecock touchdown seemed imminent but that was before UGA defensive tackle Tyler Clark surged straight into the backfield and blew up the play on Joyner’s handoff attempt back at the 6. That’s when White was called upon to make a 24-yard field goal and this time his kick was true to put the Gamecocks up 20-17.
Then came the Bulldogs’ opportunity to win the game outright by punching in a touchdown or, sending it to a third OT period with a tying field goal by Blankenship. But, alas for the home team, the Georgia offense was stoned on three consecutive plays by a Carolina defense having its finest effort of the season. Swift went for no gain on the first play at the 25 and that was followed by two consecutive Fromm incompletions. That meant the always-reliable Blankenship needed to split the uprights from 42 yards out to tie the Gamecocks once again and extend the contest. But the senior kicker, who had drilled a 50-yard kick early in the first quarter, dejectedly watched this kick go wide left of the uprights.
Final South Carolina 20, Georgia 17 as the Bulldog fan base collapsed in their seats in somewhat disbelief.
“I feel like I didn’t do my job today,” said Blankenship, who also had a field goal attempt blocked by the Gamecocks at the end of the first half. “I’ve got to go into the film room and see what happened. Right now, I don’t know.” The Georgia kicker was a perfect 12-of-12 on field goals this season before the blocked kick.
The loss snapped the Bulldogs’ 16-game home win string and also ended Georgia’s 15-game win streak against SEC East opponents.
“When a team scores on defense, it’s like a 90 percent chance they’re going to win, and we still almost overcame that,” Smart said after suffering his first home lost since his first season as UGA’s head coach in 2016, referring to the pick-6 thrown by Fromm in the first half.
“But you can’t turn the ball over four times and win.”
“I (also) felt like (South Carolina) won the line of scrimmage,” Smart said. “They played really physical, they rotated guys up front and did a better job against our run game than most people have as anybody who has done in the past.”
“Our kids will continue to fight, we’ve got to look ourselves in the mirror as coaches, as staff and do a better job,” Smart said. “We’ve got to help our kids out. I just told everyone in the locker room, you can’t hang your head. They’ve got to go get better. We’ve got to help them get better.
“When you play in the SEC, guys, every week, you’ve got to be at your best because every team is 100 percent capable of out-physicalling you and outplaying you,” said Smart.”Today, they played better than we did.”
The partisan Georgia fans also sounded a chorus of boos when the Bulldogs kept trying to hammer into the middle of the Gamecocks’ unyielding defensive front, rather than throwing the ball downfield while still trailing by seven and time running down.
“We called a lot of deep opportunities. But they’re not there if they’re getting pressed or at the line. Because there were several deep balls thrown, if you notice there was no space,” Smart said. “They were on the sidelines, they were out of bounds, they were getting wired. We’ve got to do a good job of winning the one-on-one, and when the pass pro’s there, and you give Jake time, he’s very accurate. But you’ve gotta win the one-on-ones.”
What made the upset loss even more stinging was the fact the Bulldogs rolled up 468 yards of total offense to just 297 for the Gamecocks, now 3-3 and 2-2 in the SEC. But, as Smart mentioned, Georgia couldn’t overcome those four turnovers while at the same time, extracting none from the Carolina offense. Though Fromm passed for 295 yards, he suffered through one of his worst outings as a Bulldog by throwing the three interceptions while completing just 28-of-51 attempts. He also lost a fumble on a center snap.
“That’s a big part of my game, is protect the ball,” said Fromm, who was sacked three times on Saturday. “When the ball gets in the other team’s hands, that’s not characteristic of me, not characteristic of our team and our offense, and that’s on me. I’ve got to do a better job of taking care of the ball.”
Freshman George Pickens just missed the 100-yard receiving mark, snaring seven passes for 98 yards. Robertson followed with five catches for 51 yards including his touchdown reception and Lawrence Cager and Tyler Simmons each pulled in four passes from Fromm.
Swift did rush for 113 yards but that came on 23 attempts, for just a 4.9 average per carry. Zamir White followed with 47 yards on 12 carries as the crashing Gamecock defense limited the Bulldogs to 173 yards on the ground.
The Georgia defensive unit, in general, played winning football in checking the Gamecocks to 142 yards rushing and 155 passing but couldn’t overcome their offensive counterparts turning the ball over. Junior linebacker Monty Rice and senior linebacker Tae Crowder led the way by making 12 tackles each while J.R. Reed followed with nine tackles and Eric Stokes recorded six stops.
“We’ve just got to move forward,” said Rice. “There’s nothing we can do about it now. We’ve just got to go back to the drawing board, go back to practice and go back to executing.”
And the now 5-1 Bulldogs (2-1 SEC), who are sure to tumble down the Top 10 rankings, will attempt to begin moving forward again when the Kentucky Wildcats come visiting next Saturday.