South Carolina beats No. 3 Georgia

Will Muschamp celebrates South Carolina's win over Georgia. 

Will Muschamp was like a kid on Christmas morning Saturday afternoon, running around Sanford Stadium and hugging everyone in sight after his South Carolina team upset No. 3 Georgia.

He hugged his players. He hugged his coaches. He hugged his wife. He hugged Athletic Director Ray Tanner, and then University President Bob Caslen. And then, after telling a national television audience “It’s a helluva day to be a Gamecock,” he hugged some more.

He hugged T.J. Brunson and Sadarius Hutcherson and Donell Stanley while holding a piece of the famous Georgia hedges, like that was his most precious gift on this special day.

The victory was the biggest of Muschamp’s coaching career, his first win over a top-10 team at South Carolina and the Gamecocks’ first over a top-five opponent since 2013.

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Afterward, Muschamp downplayed the personal significance, saying, “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 the fan base so they can enjoy the week.

“That’s really what it’s all about. It’s never about me.”

His players knew, though. They understand the pressure their coach has been under since a disappointing finish to last year’s 7-6 season, the heat intensifying during this year’s frustrating 2-3 start.

They knew Saturday’s monumental victory was enormous for their head coach and the future of his program.

“It’s huge,” Brunson said. “Coach Muschamp, you could see that it’s big for him.”

“I feel like we did it for Champ,” defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw said. “Having so much backlash and so much going on, it felt good to get him that one.”

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Added senior Bryan Edwards, “I feel so good for him. We’ve been fighting to get that big win for a while now.”

The win was Muschamp’s signature victory at South Carolina — for now — and it could be a season-defining, program-changing triumph.

What It Means

Muschamp’s stated goal from day one has been clear. Win the East, beat the state.

To win the SEC East these days, teams must go through Georgia. South Carolina did that Saturday, taking down the team favored to win the division and play for the SEC championship and possibly the national title. With two conference losses, South Carolina will need some help to win the division this season, but Saturday’s win was a big first step. The second one comes Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium when it takes on No. 7 Florida.

There are two teams Gamecock fans want to beat each season — Georgia and arch-rival Clemson. Muschamp was 0-6 against those two teams in his first three seasons at South Carolina. He bagged one of them Saturday, and South Carolina’s performance against the No. 3 Bulldogs provided hope that it suddenly has a much better chance against the No. 2 Tigers.

There’s also no telling the impact this victory could have on recruiting. To succeed in the SEC, attracting some of the best recruits from the state of Georgia is crucial. Muschamp awarded game balls Saturday to all of his players from Georgia. This win could bring in even more.

The stunning victory also turned around what was looking like a bleak season. For many Gamecocks fans, the season-opening loss to North Carolina still stings but Saturday’s victory should wash away the sour taste of that defeat. The Missouri loss now seems like an anomaly, a day when South Carolina played its worst and when everything that could go wrong did.

Facing the toughest schedule in the country, most fans would take a 3-3 record after six games. The matchups against No. 1 Alabama and No. 3 Georgia were supposed to be losses, and Missouri, 5-1, looks much better than expected and has a shot to win the SEC East. So, in a sense, South Carolina is right back where many expected entering the season.

But the Georgia win seems like a truer depiction of this team and what it is capable of. It also puts the Gamecocks back in position to have a successful season and reach its goals.

At 3-3, South Carolina can now become bowl eligible with wins over Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Appalachian State, all winnable games. And if it can beat No. 3 Georgia on the road, there is reason to believe it can upset No. 7 Florida at home Saturday and beat Texas A&M on the road.

More than anything, Saturday’s win gave coaches, players, fans and everyone associated with the program renewed hope that better days are ahead.

“It’s what you want, it’s why you coach in this league, it’s why you coach at South Carolina, to be a part of a great win like this,” Muschamp said. “It’s a huge win for us on the road.”

How It Happened

South Carolina had to overcome some huge obstacles to win the game. It had just 297 yards of total offense, scored just one offensive touchdown and lost starting quarterback Ryan Hilinski with 10 minutes remaining in the third quarter. It finished the game with backup Dakereon Joyner, who started the season as the No. 3 QB and a wide receiver, under center.

It missed two field goals that could have won the game, and then got a huge break when one of the best kickers in the country, Georgia’s Rodrigo Blankenship, missed a game-tying kick in the second overtime.

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Unlike the Missouri game, everything fell South Carolina’s way on Saturday. But the Gamecocks also did the two things it takes to win big SEC games and beat teams like Georgia on the road — they played great defense and ran the football.

Though Georgia had 468 yards of total offense, the South Carolina defense dominated the game, forcing four turnovers and holding the Bulldogs 26 points under its season average. The Bulldogs were averaging more than 250 yards rushing per game, but South Carolina held them to just 173. More importantly, the Gamecocks limited big plays. The Georgia offense was averaging 7.9 yards per play; South Carolina held it to just 4.9.

“When you win the turnover margin and the explosive play ratio, which we did both of those, it’s usually a pretty good formula,” Muschamp said.

Georgia has what is widely regarded as the biggest and best offensive line in the country, but the South Carolina defensive line wreaked havoc on the Georgia offense. Quarterback Jake Fromm had not been sacked all season. The Gamecocks put him down three times Saturday and had six tackles for loss. Pressure on Fromm caused the weak throw that Israel Mukuamu intercepted and returned for a touchdown. He was pressured again on the two late-game interceptions, also by Mukuamu, the SEC and national defensive player of the week.

The Gamecocks also ran the ball effectively. Though they had just 142 yards rushing, that’s more than twice what Georgia was allowing per game (60). Rico Dowdle, who had 79 yards rushing, continues to be one of the toughest runners in the SEC. His 13-yard run in the second quarter set up White’s game-tying field goal and his eight-yard run on fourth-and-1 in the second overtime set up the game-winner.

In a game that was expected to be violent and physical, South Carolina pushed around the Bulldogs and won the battle in the trenches, which frustrated Georgia head coach Kirby Smart.

“Any time you get ready to play a football game, you have to set your jaw and go play physical,” he said. “We didn’t do that. They played physical and attacked us.”

The result was a victory that could have saved South Carolina’s season and become a program-changer in the Muschamp era.