Athens — We learned something about these Bulldogs on Saturday night. We learned that they might not be as gifted or as polished as vintage Georgia teams, but we learned that they still have Bulldog-sized hearts.
Yes, they played better — at least on offense and on special teams — than they had in Stillwater, but the revelation was that they played infinitely harder. They could never quite shake South Carolina, but if not for their resolve they wouldn’t have exited with a careening victory. They’d have left 0-2.
And an 0-2 Georgia team would have touched off a hue and cry unlike any raised since Mark Richt came north from Tallahassee. We know from the week just past that even one loss is enough to set off Bulldog Nation. (”Bench Joe Cox!” “Fire Mike Bobo!” “Hire Jon Gruden!”) A second loss so soon into the 2009 season would brought the even bigger heat. And there were long and scary moments when a second loss seemed a distinct possibility.
They trailed 17-7 early, and if not for a Brandon Boykin kickoff return it would have been worse. Then they squandered 14 points off a 15-point lead by snapping the ball out of the end zone and by throwing the ball to the outrageously talented Acworthian Eric Norwood, who plays for South Carolina, and inside the final minute there was no assurance 0-1 wouldn’t become 0-2.
It was 41-37 with 6:13 left when Carolina took the ball, and within every Bulldog fan’s mind danced something other than sugarplums. Georgia would have to bank on its defense to halt somebody with the game on the line, and we all know what Georgia fans think of their defense and its coordinator. But this time the men of Willie Martinez made their stand.
Inside the Georgia 10-yard-line, inside the final 30 seconds, Carolina throwing for the end zone, and the men of Martinez held up their end. Stephen Garcia’s final two passes fell incomplete, neither of them great throws, but neither were directed toward a receiver left unencumbered. The indomitable Rennie Curran foiled the last throw, and in the end nothing much mattered except the rather astonishing score:
Georgia 41, South Carolina 37.
Joe Cox, the quarterback deemed insufficient to requirements by some among his constituency, had a nice enough game except for one regrettable interception. He kept Georgia moving after it fell behind early, and when it was 38-23 Cox seemed to have put the Gamecocks away. But then a bad snap became a safety, and then there came a field goal, and then Norwood’s interception return for a touchdown, and suddenly it was tied.
Except it wasn’t. DeAngelo Tyson, a sophomore defensive end from Statesboro, blocked the automatic PAT, and Georgia still held the skinniest of leads. That’s the kind of play a defensive end doesn’t figure to make, a quick turnaround after the opposing D has just scored, but Tyson threw up his hand and kept the Bulldogs in front by being, not to put too fine a point on it, a bulldog.
And that’s what Georgia fans could and should take from this one. This isn’t a great team by any measure, but it was never going to be. What was troubling about falling to 0-1 was how readily the Bulldogs succumbed to Oklahoma State (which just lost to Houston — yikes). What we needed to see this night wasn’t if Georgia was the nation’s most gifted assemblage — it isn’t — but if it still can play the full-tilt brand of football that made this program famous.
It took a while, both literally and figuratively in a game that lasted four hours, but we have our answer. There’s still fight in these Dawgs. These 1-1 Dawgs.