ATHENS, Ga. — Georgia was on the brink. It was losing by two scores. It did not look like the better team, even against a four-touchdown underdog. Georgia fans were booing.
During the week, Kirby Smart had been asked if he brought the game four years ago when his team was shocked at home by South Carolina, then coached by now-Georgia assistants Will Muschamp and Bryan McClendon.
“I wouldn’t give Will and B-Mac the pleasure,” Smart joked.
At halftime Saturday, it didn’t look like a joking matter. At some point, what Smart said in Georgia’s locker room may be leaked for all to hear.
The results are all we know: No. 1 Georgia turned it on and survived.
Here are initial observations from Georgia’s 24-14 win over South Carolina after trailing 14-3 at the half:
• The game began ominously for Georgia: Jared Zirkel’s kickoff went out of bounds. Then Spencer Rattler, the South Carolina quarterback who would play a whale of a game, led his offense down the field for a touchdown. Right away, Georgia trailed for the first time since Ohio State led late in the Peach Bowl.
Rattler and the Gamecocks led the rest of the half, living off the passing game, with Rattler completing all but two of his 18 passes for 152 yards. He was evasive in the pocket, only getting sacked once in the half. Georgia’s first-team defense had not been scored on in its first two games, but the Gamecocks, with only four possessions in the first half, got two touchdowns.
• Georgia played without safety Javon Bullard, the defensive MVP of both College Football Playoff games last year. And it seemed to miss him in the first half, especially when South Carolina receiver Juice Wells went through the middle of the secondary on his 17-yard touchdown catch-and-run. But Wells hurt his foot on the play and didn’t play anymore. So, the impact of those two losses may have canceled each other out.
• Georgia’s offense, meanwhile, only had four drives in the first half, the last one starting with a minute to go. That ended with a sack of Carson Beck that had the home fans booing. Beck and the Bulldogs were overly cautious in the passing game, suffered from a lack of explosive plays and stalled twice in the red zone. At halftime, South Carolina had more yards (180-168), averaged more yards per play (6.9-4.5) and looked like it had the better quarterback and the best player on the field. Brock Bowers, usually the best player on the field, only had three touches and only one on the first three drives.
• Whether it was halftime adjustments or just emotion, Georgia’s offense ignited in the second half. Playing faster and looser, Beck guided the team to two quick touchdown drives to take the lead, then another to give the Bulldogs a two-score cushion with 9:10 left.
Beck looked much more confident, hitting Rara Thomas on a 36-yard downfield strike, Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint on a 32-yarder down the middle and managed to take more chances without turning it over. The run game seemed to benefit, with walk-on Cash Jones and (sometime receiver) Dillon Bell scoring red-zone touchdowns.
• Georgia’s defense was back to its usual form in the second half. It finished on more sacks and covered receivers well. The Gamecocks, deciding they couldn’t run the ball on Georgia’s front, gambled everything on the passing game, and while it worked for the first 30 minutes, it wasn’t enough for the next 30. Georgia teed its pass rush off on the passing game and made it more difficult for Rattler, who still made some great throws. It took a consistent pass rush and standout plays from the secondary to put the game away.
Dan Jackson’s interception on a deep ball with 4:01 left essentially sealed it. The fans, many of whom had been booing to end the first half, started leaving.
• Georgia’s kicking situation is a big problem: Freshman Peyton Woodring missed his second chip-shot field goal in as many weeks, plus a 43-yarder in the fourth quarter that would have pushed the lead to 20-24. At halftime, a fan named Chase Grantham won $1,000 by making a short field goal. Everybody watching that must have been wondering the same thing.
• Whether Georgia just needed a spark or was fatefully exposed remains to be seen. Beck needs to be more daring throughout the game. The offense as a whole has plenty to work on, from playcalling to blocking to execution. And the defense can’t make future quarterbacks look the way Rattler did in the first half.
The team from Saturday’s second half will be just fine. The team from the first half, if it re-appears, has no chance to three-peat.
(Top photo of Carson Beck (15): John Adams / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)