On Sept. 13, 2014, the South Carolina student section was rambunctious.
Even through a weather delay that pushed back the scheduled 3:30 p.m. kickoff between No. 24 South Carolina and No. 6 Georgia by nearly 90 minutes, Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, South Carolina, was on fire. The Gamecocks’ student section danced and cheered to Darude’s “Sandstorm.”
The crowd also took part in a vulgar chant, former Bulldog receiver Michael Bennett said.
“F--- YOU, GEORGIA,” the student section yelled as Georgia warmed up.
The crowd of 84,232 was loud and crazy. The moment was significant. It was the last time that the Bulldogs and Gamecocks played one another while both were ranked in the top 25 of the Associated Press poll.
The game that took place was far crazier, as the Gamecocks pulled out a 38-35 upset victory over the Bulldogs after a wild sequence of events in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. A controversial play call and a fourth-down measurement highlighted the closing minutes that night under the lights in Columbia.
And the tight loss defined a season of Bulldog football.
Georgia was riding high heading into the showdown with the Gamecocks.
The Bulldogs delivered a 45-21 beating to No. 16 Clemson two weeks prior and had a bye week after to prepare for the Gamecocks, who had won three of the last four games against Georgia.
"You would have thought that the whole [student] section was on drugs or something."
- Mike Thornton, former Georgia defensive lineman
The excitement around the South Carolina program was at an all-time high under legendary coach Steve Spurrier, as the Gamecocks had registered three straight 11-win seasons heading into 2014.
“Really, that’s the most vivid part of that game that I can remember is just how rowdy that student section was,” former Georgia defensive lineman Mike Thornton said. “You would have thought that the whole section was on drugs or something. They were in a trance. Everybody was on the same page. They were playing ‘Sandstorm’. It was just the craziest environment.”
Driven by its home-field advantage, South Carolina went into the locker rooms with a 24-13 lead, forcing the favored Bulldogs into comeback mode throughout the second half.
Georgia would ride quarterback Hutson Mason (16-for-22, 191 yards, 2 touchdowns) and star running back Todd Gurley (20 carries, 131 yards, one touchdown) to get within three points with 7:10 to play.
But what followed lives in the rivalry’s history books forever.
The play call
On the ensuing Gamecock drive after a Quayvon Hicks touchdown to make it 38-35 South Carolina, the Gamecocks faced third-and-10 at their own 14-yard line. A stop would give Georgia a chance to get the ball back with ample time to launch a go-ahead scoring drive.
The Georgia defense delivered something far greater.
Cornerback Damian Swann picked off South Carolina’s Dylan Thompson over the middle. His return and a penalty on the Gamecocks set Georgia up with first-and-goal on the South Carolina 4-yard line with 5:24 to play.
With Gurley in their corner and being so close to the goal line, the Bulldogs felt they had made the play necessary to win the game.
“I think all of us were thinking that we were just going to feed Todd and Todd was going to take us to the promised land,” Thornton said. “So, I think that was definitely running across my head, that Swann sealed this thing up and Todd was going to take it home.”
Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo had other ideas. Georgia instead ran a play-action pass, a bootleg for Mason to find Hicks in the flat.
“I know that play call was highly scrutinized,” Mason said. “Looking back, I’m sure when you have the chance to give the ball to one of the best players in country, you’ve got to find a way to get it to him. Unfortunately, it went worst-case scenario.”
Gamecocks defensive end Gerald Dixon was not fooled by the play fake and rushed straight at Mason. Hicks had not come open yet. So, with nowhere to go with the ball, Mason tried to throw it at Hicks’ feet to take an incompletion and play the next down.
But the ball was deflected slightly by Dixon, and it landed closer to the center of the field far away from Hicks. The officials called intentional grounding, refuting Mason’s claim that the ball was deflected.
The penalty backed Georgia up to the 14-yard line on second-and-goal. The Bulldogs got just three yards on the next two downs and were forced to settle for a 28-yard field goal attempt by Marshall Morgan to tie the game. Morgan had made 20 consecutive field goals heading into the South Carolina game but missed a 44-yarder in the second quarter to snap that streak.
Morgan would miss again on the 28-yard attempt, as the ball went just inches right and curved around the upright. Georgia players still can’t help but think what could have happened if the Bulldogs had gone to Gurley on first down.
“I mean, it wasn’t the best call, that’s for sure,” Bennett said. “But anytime you’ve got your first-round running back right there, you’ve got to give it to him. But, in the same breath, it is what it is. It’s a play we worked on all week in practice, and we thought it would work. Coach Bobo thought it was a good time to call it. No one is going to be perfect. No play caller is going to be perfect.”
The Gamecocks took over with 4:24 on their own 20. They moved the ball upfield but eventually faced a fourth-and-inches on their own 49-yard line with 1:26 to play. Instead of trying to pin Georgia deep, Spurrier elected to go for it to try and ice the game. A stop would give Georgia the ball with a chance to win on the plus side of the field.
Thompson ran a quarterback sneak straight up the middle and bodies piled. A measurement was called for and both sides surrounded the ball and officials as the chain was extended.
The nose of the ball was right at the edge of the chains. Too close to call.
The officials ruled it a first down for the Gamecocks and the call stood after review. The Gamecocks were able to kneel the clock out, but former Bulldogs still feel the right call was not made.
“I don’t think [he got the first down],” Thornton said. “I was in on that play. It was a little bit of home cooking. But you can’t leave the game in the referees’ hands like that in such an environment. You’ve got to take the game by the horns and win it all out.”
Had Georgia defeated South Carolina that night, the Bulldogs would have likely won the SEC East title and appeared in their third SEC championship game in four seasons.
Instead, the Bulldogs settled for an underwhelming 9-3 regular season, which included another heartbreaking loss to Georgia Tech and a beatdown at the hands of Florida. Mason and Bennett felt the team gave away both the South Carolina and Georgia Tech games, and the narrative around the team was altered by those two losses.
Regardless of the Georgia Tech outcome, an appearance in the SEC title game could have spared much of the disappointment, something the gutting loss to the Gamecocks took away.
“It stings to look back on that as one of the moments and one of the games that clearly defined that season,” Mason said. “If we had won that game, we would have won the East. It’s just crazy to think, if you win the East and go to the SEC Championship Game, Mark Richt might still be the head coach at Georgia.”
Bennett was not so sure of the loss’s effect on Richt’s eventual firing. He said an SEC title win would have saved Richt’s job, but a loss would have made Georgia 0-3 in the SEC title game since 2005.
But none of those possibilities are reality.
In the end, Georgia was inches away from making a game-tying field goal, inches away from a colossal stop on fourth down and inches away from beating the Gamecocks.
Whether it be by inches or miles, the Bulldogs fell short, and it took a disastrous bootleg, a missed chip-shot field goal and one close fourth-down measurement to get that outcome.
“I think it just goes back to the bottom line is that it’s another one of those once-in-a-lifetime-type circumstances,” Mason said. “That seemed to be the theme that night. Once in a million and five chances when you run a naked [bootleg], that happens. I’ve run 5,000 nakeds in my life and I’ve never had that circumstance happen. I’ve never seen a ball — never in a game I’ve played or watched — have I ever seen a first down call come down to that. So, it just kind of makes you shake your head.”