ATHENS, Ga. — Not many people in Sanford Stadium and watching around the country thought South Carolina had a chance to upset No. 3 Georgia Saturday.
But Will Muschamp did.
His players did.
And the few hundred Gamecock fans who made the trek to Athens did.
They believed, and they were rewarded with the biggest upset of this college football season as the Gamecocks, 24-point underdogs, knocked off the national title contenders on their home field.
“Probably no one in the stadium other than the parents and the kids and the people sitting in that locker room thought it was going to happen,” Muschamp said. “We just worry about us, we are going to take care of us.”
The 20-17 double-overtime victory was South Carolina’s biggest victory in the Muschamp era and the first win over a ranked opponent since 2016. It was the first win over a top-five team since Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks beat No. 5 Missouri in 2013 and the first win over a top-five Georgia team since 2012.
Despite a disappointing 2-3 start that included ugly losses to North Carolina and Missouri, Muschamp and his players believed Saturday was the day when they would finally play like they are capable. Two weeks after getting back on track with a dominating win over Kentucky, the Gamecocks fought like the team Muschamp believed he had all along, frustrating Georgia on defense and fighting the SEC East favorites until the final play.
“From the get-go. With how we prepare, we know what kind of team we have, we have faith in our coaches. Since day one, we knew we could win this game,” said backup quarterback Dakereon Joyner, who led the Gamecocks to the victory after taking after starter Ryan Hilinski left the game with a knee injury early in the third quarter.
“We have always believed. We always have confidence,” said running back Rico Dowdle.
South Carolina won a physical slugfest, going toe-to-toe with the heavily favored Bulldogs in front of 92,746 at Sanford Stadium. Though Georgia had 468 yards of total offense, the Gamecock defense came up with big play after big play, including three sacks and four turnovers. The defense held Georgia’s vaunted running game to 173 yards rushing and prevented big plays, forcing quarterback Jake Fromm to throw a career-high 51 passes. Fromm threw for 295 yards and a touchdown but threw three interceptions.
South Carolina compiled just 297 yards of total offense, but rushed for 142 yards and had to lean on Joyner and the running game after Hilinski went down. But the South Carolina defensive line harassed Fromm and Georgia all day and sophomore defensive back Israel Mukuamu intercepted three passes, one which he returned for a 53-yard touchdown to give South Carolina a 17-10 halftime lead.
“This was the type of game that you play for,” said senior linebacker T.J. Brunson, who had 10 tackles. “It was a heavyweight fight for four quarters.”
After Georgia tied the game at 17 on a touchdown pass from Fromm to Demetris Robertson with 1:48 remaining in the game, the defense rose up again in overtime. The Bulldogs got the ball first, but Mukuamu picked off Fromm for the third time. That gave South Carolina a chance to win the game but kicker Parker White missed a field goal on fourth-and-one.
South Carolina got the ball to start the second overtime and drove to the Georgia 2-yard line before Dowdle was thrown for a 4-yard loss on third down. White got another chance and nailed his second-chance kick to give the Gamecocks a 20-17 lead.
Georgia got one last chance to win the game, or tie, but could not gain a first down and kicker Rodrigo Blankenship, one of the top kickers in the country, missed wide left, setting off a wild celebration on Dooley Field.
After Blankenship’s kicked sailed wide left, the Gamecocks stormed the field and raced toward the West end zone, where they celebrated with Gamecocks fans and collected handfuls of green from the famous Georgia hedges.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of something like that, the No. 3 team in the country,” Dowdle said. “It was a great feeling with my teammates and coaches, just very enjoyable.”
“I think I hugged everybody,” Brunson said.
Javon Kinlaw, who had a sack and wreaked havoc on the Georgia offense, said it was the second-best feeling he’s had this year, after the birth of his daughter six months ago.
“It was a great feeling. I never felt that before,” he said.
“It’s a helluva day to be a Gamecock,” Muschamp told SEC Network as a walked off the field.
Once inside the locker room, Muschamp yelled, “How about them Gamecocks!” setting off another wild celebration.
“Really proud of our guys,” he said a few minutes later. “You show a lot of mettle, a lot of toughness and you talk in terms of the character of the program and the culture of the program and the leadership of the program and the character of the young men in that locker room. We have been through a lot this year. We have been very inconsistent to this point, [but] the bottom line is we did what we had to do to win the ball game.”
The win was Muschamp’s biggest at South Carolina and maybe of his career. Though he downplayed the significance to his own legacy, his players understand the magnitude of the win.
“It’s huuuge,” said senior defensive lineman Kobe Smith. “This was our signature win.”
“I feel so good for him,” senior receiver Bryan Edwards said. “We’ve been fighting to get that big win for a while now.”
The victory may have salvaged what was looking like a bleak year for South Carolina. After a disappointing season-opening loss to North Carolina, the Gamecocks played poorly in a miserable 34-14 defeat at Missouri, leaving fans disgruntled and discouraged with the nation’s toughest schedule still ahead.
But the Gamecocks bounced back with a complete-game victory over Kentucky two weeks ago and headed to Athens after a bye week confident they could play with the No. 3 team in the country. The win Saturday relieved a ton of pressure and instilled confidence that South Carolina can salvage a successful season and possibly even contend in the SEC East.
“I feel like we did it for the Champ,” Kinlaw said. “Having so much backlash and so much going on, it felt good to get that one for him. It felt really good.”
For Muschamp, it is not about him.
“I couldn’t care less about Will Muschamp. I’m really happy for our players, I’m happy for a staff that works its ass off, I’m happy for our fan base so they can enjoy the week, and that’s really what it’s all about. It’s never about me,” he said.
It did not come easy.
The defense battled all day to throttle a Georgia offense that was averaging 43 points and 512 yards per game. And the offense came up with just enough big plays to win the game.
With Georgia leading 3-0 in the first quarter, Hilinski capped a 9-play, 93-yard drive with a beautiful 46-yard touchdown pass to Edwards.
Georgia countered with a 75-yard drive capped by D’Andre Swift’s 1-yard touchdown run. After White kicked a career-high 49-yard field goal to tie the game at 10, South Carolina produced the play of the game.
On second down from the Georgia 47, Kinlaw burst through the line and bore down on Fromm, decking him just as he let go of a pass. Mukuamu intercepted the pass and raced 53 yards for a touchdown to give South Carolina a 17-10 halftime lead.
With South Carolina’s defense coming up with big play after big play, it stayed that way until Georgia scored late in the fourth quarter to force overtime.
“Our kids fought their asses off,” Muschamp said. “You can’t question that and how hard they play.”
“I think we showed great resilience,” Dowdle said. “It showed who we are as a team, that we are never going to quit … that we are going to fight.”
Though South Carolina made plenty of mistakes and struggled offensively, the win made a statement about the “blue-collar” nature of his team and organization, Muschamp said.
“It says a lot about the type of young men you are recruiting, it says a lot about the character and a lot about belief,” he said. “Sometimes the results don’t always equal where you are and I always try to tell the players, it’s not about the distance, it’s about the direction you are headed. I always felt like we were headed down the right path and we had the right people in the building to be successful.
“It’s been frustrating, it really has. … [But] today was a good win for us and we have to build on it.”
Finally, Muschamp and his program have a signature win to boast about and build on.
“It’s been a long time coming,” said Brunson, Muschamp's very first recruit. “Coaches talk about making memories all the time and just enjoying everything, the process. This is something that you won’t ever forget. I know I won’t forget and I know some of the guys in there won’t forget it. It’s huge for us.”