published Sunday, September 8th, 2013

Wiedmer: Georgia suddenly East team to beat

Georgia running back Keith Marshall (4) reacts with Georgia wide receiver Michael Bennett (82) after Marshall scored a touchdown against South Carolina Saturday in Athens, Ga.
Georgia running back Keith Marshall (4) reacts with Georgia wide receiver Michael Bennett (82) after Marshall scored a touchdown against South Carolina Saturday in Athens, Ga.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

ATHENS, Ga. — Glistening with honest sweat, Georgia center David Andrews sat slumped in a chair inside the Bulldogs' locker room, a tired but proud smile frozen on his face.

"Our whole offense," he said, "played awesome tonight."

Georgia 41, South Carolina 30. If it gets much more awesome than the passion play these two SEC East border brothers staged Saturday evening inside Sanford Stadium, ESPN will break the bank to keep the league's telecast rights until civilization ends.

This one had it all. A 24-24 halftime tie after Georgia led 17-3. A 34-30 UGA edge early in the fourth quarter. A combined 990 yards of offense, the victors gaining 536, including the final 79 to run out the clock on a drive begun inside their own 1-yard line. An 85-yard scrambling touchdown strike from Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray to Justin Scott-Wesley on a third-and-13 that called to mind Buck Belue to Lindsey Scott 33 years ago.

If this is the Southeastern Conference in September, imagine what theater we're in for in November.

Or as Bulldogs boss Mark Richt gushed in victory most sweet: "What a war. These guys showed me something. We're beginning to define what kind of team we are."

Everyone outside the inner workings of the Georgia team was attempting to define what kind of team this was from the exact moment the Dawgs' 38-35 loss at Clemson became official on the final day of August. And the words weren't kind:

Soft.

Undisciplined.

Overrated.

Chokers.

And no one was hearing it more than Murray, he of the six losses and but a single win against Top 10 teams for his career entering this contest. It was crazy to say Murray was the biggest reason Georgia lost at Clemson -- not when he threw for 323 yards, hit 20 of 29 passes and rushed for the touchdown that pulled the Dawgs within three late.

But the criticism came. In tidal waves. Much as it has for most of his career.

"When you're the starting quarterback at the University of Georgia, there's pressure every week," Andrews said. "Unbelievable pressure. But Aaron always handles it like a pro."

He handled the No. 6 Gamecocks like a YMCA team. Murray threw for 309 yards and four touchdowns -- two in each half -- without a single interception. He was sacked twice, including once by the Hypemeister Jadeveon Clowney, who entered this season as a Heisman hopeful and has six total tackles and one sack after two games.

Who looks overrated now?

Or maybe Georgia is just this good. Maybe the Bulldogs have discovered it's OK to play like the team that nearly took down two-time defending national champ Alabama in last year's SEC title game. Five more yards and Georgia would have reached the BCS national championship game instead of the Tide. Five more yards and the Dawgs would have knocked out Notre Dame instead of big, bad Bama.

Instead, Murray and his mates had to wait another year to prove their worth. Then an extra week when the football gods turned against them inside Clemson's Death Valley last week.

"You turned on the TV this week and all you heard was how bad we played [against Clemson]," Andrews said. "You couldn't escape it."

But come Saturday, Sanford Stadium's 93,000 patrons as loud as they've ever been, you couldn't escape the excitement. Atop what is arguably the prettiest field in the league, rimmed with historic hedges and framed on the perimeter by gorgeous trees, the Gamecocks and Bulldogs put on the kind of show that makes the rest of the country both jealous and humbled.

"This was amazing," said senior offensive guard Chris Burnette. "It's definitely up there with the biggest wins of my career. Maybe not Florida. Just because of the hatred for those guys. But otherwise, this is huge."

There was the obvious hugeness of Todd Gurley's 132 rushing yards and single TD on a catch. There was the subtle hugeness of fullback Quayvon Hicks, who ran for 28 yards, blocked beautifully throughout and caught a crucial 23-yard pass on the final drive that advanced the ball from the UGA 2 to the 25.

"Before that last drive I gathered the offense together and asked them how glorious it would be if we go 99 yards and never give the ball back," Richt recalled afterward. "We didn't score, but we never gave it back, either."

There should be much taking back of all that venom aimed Richt's way after the Clemson loss. Maybe Georgia could have played better. But maybe Clemson's that good. Especially on its home soil.

Want a reason to praise Richt today? Try that gutty onside kick he called after taking a 7-3 lead less than eight minutes into the game. It led only to a field goal, but it kept South Carolina's defense on the field for two successive possessions, something that surely yielded dividends down the line.

None of this means Georgia is a lock to return to the Georgia Dome in December for a third straight SEC title game. LSU yet awaits. And a trip to Knoxville to face the Volunteers. And those hated Gators.

But after Saturday night, none of those teams is probably eager to play Georgia, either. Especially after Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said, "They kicked our tails up and down the field."

Countered Richt, ever cautious and concerned: "Just to think we've got much more like that coming up, I can't imagine it."

In the SEC, where every week is a sporting war, we can't imagine anything else.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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