COLUMBIA, S.C. — In a career of special moments, Steve Spurrier added another one in South Carolina’s victory over fifth-ranked Georgia. And there may be some even bigger ones ahead for the Gamecocks and their ball coach.
Connor Shaw threw two touchdown passes and ran for another, Ace Sanders had a dazzling 70-yard punt return touchdown and No. 6 South Carolina’s defense dominated fifth-ranked Georgia in a 35-7 victory Saturday night.
“If we play like this, maybe we have a chance for a real big year,” Spurrier said. “Maybe.”
Spurrier’s caution is well placed. After all, this is the Southeastern Conference.
The Gamecocks (6-0, 4-0 SEC) head to angry LSU, the defending league champions who lost for the first time earlier Saturday, next week night, then go to Florida — the undefeated Gators beat LSU — for a game that should decide the Eastern Division.
South Carolina sure looks ready for the challenge.
“We definitely sent a message out to the whole country,” Gamecocks tailback Marcus Lattimore said. “It’s not the old South Carolina. We can play with y’all. We can play with anybody.”
The Gamecocks their school-record 10th straight game with a performance that marked certainly marked them an Eastern Division front-runner — and maybe showed they’re capable of even more.
“This was a special one,” said Spurrier, who has a national title on his impressive resume from his time with Florida. “It really was.”
South Carolina grounded “Gurshall,” holding Georgia’s stellar freshmen Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall to 76 yards combined. The Bulldogs (5-1, 3-1) finished with 224 yards, less than half their season’s average coming in.
“First of all, the bad news is we took a whipping. The good news is we all took it together. It was a team loss,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said.
Lattimore ended with 109 yards and a touchdown, the third straight time he’s gone past the century mark on the Bulldogs. Coincidence the Gamecocks have posted their first-ever three game win streak in the series that began in 1894?
The Gamecocks 10th straight victory surpasses a school best set with their 9-0 start in 1984. That team reached No. 2 in the country and were poised for the top spot when No. 1 Nebraska lost, but South Carolina fell to Navy to lose perhaps its best-ever shot at a national champion.
This South Carolina team showed the brand of championship defense usually found on the SEC’s best teams.
Georgia came in with a league-leading 48.2 points and 536 yards a game of offense — and where shut down by the Gamecocks.
Gurley and Marshall kept pounding the line to little effect, held scoreless after combining for 294 yards and five TDs in last week’s win over Tennessee. Aaron Murray was 11 of 31 for 109 yards. He was sacked twice and threw one interception.
The game figured to be a matchup of Georgia’s explosive offense against South Carolina’s impenetrable D. The Gamecocks showed early it was no contest, holding the Bulldogs to just 111 yards of offense in the first half and taking control of the game.
South Carolina’s offense set the tone at first, Spurrier once again showing there are few better at calling plays. Damiere Byrd outfought Georgia’s Bacarri Rambo for a 42-yard catch on the game’s second snap. Two plays later, Shaw hit a wide-open Bruce Ellington for a 20-yard TD catch that sent the record crowd of 85,199 into a frenzy.
They had more to celebrate moments later when Kelcy Quarles tipped Murray’s pass high in the air and safety DeVonte Holloman made a diving interception. Shaw cashed in again for the Gamecocks, ending a 69-yard sequence when tight end Rory Anderson came open in the end zone for a 14-yard touchdown.
South Carolina used special teams — typically a Georgia strength — to extend the lead a few plays later after a three-and-out by the Bulldogs. Sanders bobbled the punt, got the ball back, broke several tackles and outrun the punter to the left pylon for a 21-0 lead with less than nine minutes gone.
The Gamecocks defense took control after that.
Georgia “didn’t move it very far when they were out there,” Spurrier said with a grin.
South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney sacked Murray for a loss of 6 yards to stall one series. Gurley and Marshall were continually swallowed up for minimal gains. The Bulldogs looked as if they’d found their footing right before halftime, Murray converting three third-down passes to get to the Gamecocks 4. But on fourth-and-goal, Rantavious Wooten was stopped shy of the end zone after catching a short pass by D.J. Swearinger and Shaq Wilson.
First-year defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward thought his team could put on a show against the high-powered Bulldogs. “I believe in the young men that I coach every day, I believe in the system that we run and I believe we can play with anybody,” he said.
The biggest drama of the second half was whether Georgia would leave with its first shutout since a 31-0 loss to Alabama in 1995. Spurrer kept his defensive starters in, yet the Bulldogs drove 75 yards to score on Ken Malcome’s 3-yard TD run with 1:55 to go.
Malcome finished as the team’s top rusher with 45 yards, all on Georgia’s scoring drive.
“We hoped to make a play to change momentum but they never allowed us to,” Richt said.