Mark Richt leads his 22nd-ranked Georgia Bulldogs into an SEC battle with Steve Spurrier’s 24th-ranked South Carolina Gamecocks in Columbia this weekend.
“Our guys are focused on South Carolina right now,” said Richt. “I always think the race in the East is wide open, and everybody will have a decent idea in a few weeks. Everybody is hoping to get that first win in league play and get momentum.”
The Bulldogs began their season last weekend with a 55-7 romp over Louisiana. Georgia was 8-5 a year ago, and while many programs would consider their season a success if they garnered that record, Richt made it perfectly clear in the offseason that eight wins at Georgia simply isn’t good enough. This year’s group is not loaded with returning talent, so it remains to be seen if an improvement on last year’s mark is possible.
South Carolina cruised to a 41-13 victory over Southern Miss last weekend to begin the campaign, and the lone touchdown scored by the Golden Eagles came with under one minute remaining in the contest.
“Good win for us,” said coach Spurrier after the contest. “We missed a few opportunities (but) we played well and won the game. We’ll try to improve for the next game against Georgia.”
In his first five years at the helm, Spurrier has compiled a 35-28 record, not exactly what the program had hoped for when it signed the former Florida leader. The Gamecocks, who finished 7-6 a year ago, return more talented players than any of Spurrier’s five prior seasons, and that’s the reason for optimism in Columbia.
Georgia owns a commanding 46-14-2 series advantage over South Carolina, including wins in seven of the last eight meetings between the programs.
The Bulldogs played the opener shorthanded, as their top receiver and rusher from a year ago in A.J. Green and Washaun Ealey were missing from the lineup. Green was held out as the NCAA investigates his alleged improper interaction with an agent, while Ealey was suspended after being charged in late August with hit and run and driving on a suspended license. While Ealey is expected back this weekend, Green’s situation remains uncertain.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Aaron Murray made his debut against Louisiana last week for the Bulldogs, and he completed 17-of-26 passes for 160 yards with three touchdown passes. Murray also ran for a score and was intercepted once, an impressive debut overall. Kris Durham benefited from Murray’s big day, catching five passes for 83 yards and a touchdown.
The Georgia defense played about as well as Richt could have hoped for in the opener, as the group limited Louisiana to 128 total yards, 60 of which came on one play. The Bulldogs surrendered a mere 14 rushing yards on 29 attempts by the Ragin’ Cajuns, who also completed just 8-of-24 passes with three interceptions. Georgia had three sacks in the tilt and held Louisiana to 3- of-16 success on third-down conversion attempts. No one player stood out for the defense, as it was clearly a team effort.
“The defense seemed to be locked in mentally, they played extremely hard and had very few mental errors,” Richt said. “They were well-prepared, and we didn’t have any penalties on defense.”
South Carolina achieved tremendous balance offensively against Southern Miss, as the Gamecocks posted 224 rushing yards and 225 passing yards. Stephen Garcia, the team’s quarterback, connected on 16-of-23 passes for 193 yards without an interception, and he also ran for two scores.
“We were last in the SEC in rushing the past two years and that’s what we need to get going this year is the rushing game,” said Garcia after the victory. “We have the talent and strength up front. If we can run the ball, it’s hard to beat us with our defense playing the way they’re playing.”
Marcus Lattimore also ran for two touchdowns for South Carolina, and standout receiver Alshon Jeffery hauled in seven receptions for 106 yards. USC ran far fewer plays than Southern Miss, 19 to be exact, but the Gamecocks averaged 6.9 yards per play compared to 4.8 for the opposition.
Moving to the defensive side of the ball, South Carolina can take pride in the way that it played. Sure, Southern Miss was able to rack up 404 total yards, but the lone touchdown occurred late as mentioned. Also, the Gamecocks surrendered a mere 67 rushing yards, and even the high passing total of USM came on just 8.9 yards per completion. Put simply, South Carolina avoided getting hurt by big plays. Stephon Gilmore had a pair of TFLs in the win.
Expect a physical, close contest from start to finish, and give a narrow edge to South Carolina. Garcia is much more experienced than Murray, and Columbia will be a tough environment for the Bulldogs’ rookie signal caller.