ATHENS, Ga. -- If South Carolina truly will contend for the SEC championship this season, step one's out of the way.
The Gamecocks held on for a 16-12 upset of No. 11 Georgia Saturday, riding a sterling defensive effort and three field goals from Ryan Succop to notch their first win over their biggest SEC rival in five years. The defense, maligned last week for failing to stop the run against Louisiana-Lafayette, held the Bulldogs to 128 rushing yards and kept them out of the end zone for the first time since Sept. 8, 2001.
Coincidentally, six years to the day it happened the last time, the result was the same. USC won 14-9 in Athens that day, the last time the Gamecocks beat the Bulldogs.
"It was a wonderful win and I told somebody out there that this wasn't a shock," coach Steve Spurrier said. "We thought we could play defense like we did tonight." Georgia (1-1, 0-1 SEC) had a chance to win it, after USC (2-0, 1-0 SEC) had to punt with a 16-12 lead and 1:11 left. The Bulldogs, who'd just missed a touchdown on their previous possession, went to work at their own 20-yard-line.
Matthew Stafford moved the Bulldogs to the Gamecocks' 46 with 50 seconds to go and threw two straight incompletions. On third down, the Bulldogs were flagged for a block in the back and then false-started, setting up a third-and-25 on their own 41.
Stafford fired downfield for flanker Sean Bailey. The ball was tipped away, flipped into the air and into the arms of USC linebacker Jasper Brinkley, who tucked it and sprinted madly down the sideline.
Brinkley was knocked out of bounds and the Gamecocks ran out the clock, joyously celebrating a 1-0 conference start and hopefully the start of something special. Spurrier said all preseason he thought the Gamecocks had the talent to compete for the SEC title, and although it was just one game, Spurrier said it was a move up the mountain.
"We're 1-0 in the SEC, that's all," he shrugged. "It's a step for this team ... just a step."
USC led the Bulldogs for all but the first 12:35. Cory Boyd ran in the only touchdown of the night in the first quarter, and the Gamecocks were on their way.
Using a playbook mostly contrived of screen passes and catch-and-runs, quarterback Blake Mitchell returned after a one-game suspension and looked exactly like the senior who won Liberty Bowl MVP honors at the conclusion of last season. Ignoring a crowd of Georgia students who painted "Go2ClassBlake" on their backs just above the USC sideline, Mitchell calmly directed the Gamecocks up and down the field.
They only got into the end zone once, but the defense stepped up. The Gamecocks shut down the run almost completely, a 41-yard scamper from Knowshon Moreno doing the most damage, and when Stafford had to shake the run and start throwing, USC did just enough to hold on.
"We still made some mistakes," defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix said, brushing a question aside asking if he was ever happy. "But our kids competed for the entire game."
USC took a 16-6 lead with 9:19 to go but Georgia began moving the ball. The Gamecocks held the Bulldogs to a field goal, cutting the lead to 16-9, and took the ball.
The drive short-circuited and USC punted with 6:17 to go. The Bulldogs immediately took advantage, getting three straight first downs and knocking on the door at the Gamecocks' 11-yard-line.
Stafford bounced a pass off Michael Moore's hands in the corner of the end zone and Georgia false-started on the next play, setting up second-and-15. Tight end Tripp Chandler let another Stafford pass slip through his hands to force a third down, when Stafford again dropped back and threw across the middle.
Tony Wilson was at the goal line and leaped to catch it, but USC defenders Carlos Thomas and Brandon Isaac sandwiched Wilson at the point of the catch. Thomas, a Georgia native who'd gotten hit with two personal fouls on the game's first drive, celebrated as the ball fluttered to the turf, sending Brandon Coutu on for his fourth field goal.
From there it was another gut-wrenching final defensive stand, finally decided when Brinkley got the game's only turnover. Another Georgia native, Brinkley led the charge to the USC section of Sanford Stadium, the crowd still waving pom-poms 15 minutes after the game ended.
"Coach talked all week about discipline and making special plays," said Brinkley, who finished with 5 1/2 tackles. "So far since I've been here, this is the best defensive game we ever had."
USC dodged bullet after bullet, but emerged with the victory and headed home. The Gamecocks host S.C. State next week before a tough trip to LSU after, and the win over Georgia will have to be shelved.
At least, eventually. Saturday night was for celebrating.
"I didn't try to do too much," said Mitchell, who ended up with 174 yards on 20-of-31 passing with no interceptions. "Our defense really stepped up and played the way they're capable of playing."
n NOTE: Emanuel Coo k was cleared to play by the USC medical staff before the game. Cook, recovering from appendicitis, entered on the third play of the game at defensive back. He finished with two tackles.
David Cloninger • 909-4218