COLUMBIA, S.C. — No. 24 South Carolina's defense showed it's not nearly as bad as it looked two weeks ago — and maybe that No. 6 Georgia isn't the runaway favorite in the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division.
The Gamecocks (2-1, 1-1 SEC), faced with a 1st-and-goal on their 4-yard line, held the powerhouse Bulldogs out of the end zone to preserve a 38-35 victory on Saturday night. It was an unexpected look from a unit that lost No. 1 NFL draft pick Jadeveon Clowney from last year and was shredded by No. 7 Texas A&M in its opening game on Aug. 28.
"It was the best feeling I've had for a long time," defensive tackle J.T. Surratt said. "We knew we had to buck up and make a stop."
It seemed unlikely, especially with Georgia star Todd Gurley in the backfield and the Bulldogs trailing by three.
Instead, Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason was called for intentional grounding on first down to get the Bulldogs back. Gurley managed just three yards on second down and Mason's pass toward the end zone was tipped at the line by Surratt.
That's when the usually reliable Marshall Morgan, who had set an SEC record with his 20th straight field goal earlier in the game, missed right from 28 yards away with 4:24 left to end Georgia's last best chance.
"When they missed the field goal, that's the loudest it's been in a long time," said quarterback Dylan Thompson, who threw for three TDs but whose late pick set the Bulldogs up close to the goal line.
Gurley finished with 131 yards and a touchdown, yet could only watch after Morgan's missed field goal as South Carolina ran out the clock. The Gamecocks had one last moment of drama when Thompson's sneak on fourth-and-short reached the first down by inches with 1:22 left. Georgia coach Mark Richt challenged the spot, but his appeal was denied.
Gamecocks defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward knew his defense couldn't be as awful as it looked in the season opener when it surrendered a school-record 680 yards to the Aggies.
He saw that improvement this time out with the clinching strong stand, although he sounded like most Georgia fans wondering why Gurley didn't get the ball right away in the series.
"I thought they'd try and get a ball to Gurley," Ward said. "They didn't."
Richt acknowledged as much when asked about the sequence.
"If I had to do it again, I'd have hammered it," he said.
Instead, the Bulldogs lost for the fourth time in five years to Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks.
"Like I said last week, some wins are better than others," Spurrier said with a smile.
The victory was Spurrier's 201st as an SEC coach, tying him for second all-time with Georgia great Vince Dooley. More importantly, it put the Gamecocks right back in the SEC East race.
Gamecock players, bashed by fans and commentators since falling to No. 7 Texas A&M 52-28 two games ago, sprinted to the student section to celebrate their fourth victory in their last five meetings with Georgia.
"We proved a point tonight," linebacker Skai Moore said. "We're going to feed off this victory."
The win also made Spurrier 16-6 in his career against the Bulldogs, something the head ball coach made sure to mention to his players in the locker room.
"We got a whole bunch of them at Florida," Spurrier said. "But to get five of them at South Carolina, that's something. I think I may be the winningest coach against Georgia here at South Carolina."
The Bulldogs entered with momentum and a Heisman Trophy front-runner in Gurley after their 45-21 defeat of No. 23 Clemson to start the season.
But South Carolina put them on their heels in a hurry, Thompson going 4-for-4 for 64 yards including a 10-yard scoring throw to Shaq Roland.
After Georgia moved in front 10-7 — and Morgan hit an SEC-record 19th straight field goal — the Gamecocks got help to regain the lead. A Georgia interception was ruled pass interference on cornerback Devin Bowman before defensive tackle Toby Johnson hit Thompson late to push the Gamecocks to the Bulldogs 8.
Thompson found Pharoh Cooper moments later as the Gamecocks took the lead for good, 14-10.
Little went right for the Bulldogs in the opening half, with Morgan missing a 44-yarder after making 20 straight. He broke the SEC mark he shared with Tennessee's Fuad Reviez with a 36-yard field goal in the first quarter then added a 26-yard field goal.
Gurley looked ready to go off Saturday night with 30 yards on his first three carries in the opening period.
That's when the Gamecocks zeroed in on Georgia's star tailback, who was held to 14 yards the rest of the half.
Gurley also had a 54-yard TD run wiped out because of holding on sophomore guard Brandon Kublanow.
Georgia closed to three points one last time on Quayvon Hicks' 1-yard scoring run with 7:10 left.
The game was delayed nearly 90 minutes because of lightning and severe weather.