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September 6, 2010

USC Aching to Win That One Possession

Perhaps it shouldn't have happened, considering one school has gone to three BCS bowls and had six seasons of 10 wins or more over the stretch and the other has had zero of each.

But it has, which makes Saturday's game so intriguing.

Throw out the statistics and predictions -- it's South Carolina-Georgia.

"Obviously both teams desperately want to win it," coach Steve Spurrier said on Sunday's teleconference. "Obviously it puts one in better position than the other."

Over the past decade, the Gamecocks and Bulldogs have engaged in some classic games. Georgia wants to win it because it's usually the first conference game of the year, and the Bulldogs under coach Mark Richt have used it as a stepping stone toward the SEC East title.

USC wants it for bragging rights and the same reason of SEC championships, although that road has not been as kind to the Gamecocks as it has its Southwestern neighbor. Yet it's the Gamecocks that seem to have the bigger chance to use the annual matchup as the first piece of a bigger puzzle this year, not the Bulldogs.

To do so, it has to win that one possession. Seven of the past 10 games between USC and Georgia have been decided by seven or less points, with the Bulldogs winning five of those and seven of 10 overall.

That one possession has been increasingly hard to find and exponentially heartbreaking from year to year, although the Gamecocks have claimed two:

14-9 USC, 2001 The saying goes that USC doesn't celebrate great seasons, but great moments. There simply aren't that many great seasons in school history, leaving the tag of "legend" up to the individuals who turn opportunity into greatness.

Brian Scott was one of those individuals.

On an underthrown Phil Petty pass that Georgia's Bruce Thornton had in his sights, Scott leaped behind and stretched his hands over Thornton for the game-winning touchdown. Georgia's last-chance drive ended as Jeremiah Garrison intercepted Cory Phillips.

A defensive struggle throughout, neither team broke 300 yards. Petty threw for 193 but only one touchdown (Andrew Pinnock rumbled in from a yard out for the other) and the Gamecocks beat Georgia in consecutive years for the first time since 1988-89.

It was all set to be the first three-game winning streak against Georgia in the series' history, but ...

13-7 Georgia, 2002 Trailing 13-7 with less than 15 seconds to play, USC had marched 60 yards to the Bulldogs' 2-yard-line. On fourth down, the call was for Pinnock, who at 260 pounds, was used to being the short-yardage specialist. It simply made sense for the ball to go to the massive-shouldered Pinnock, let him gain a head of steam and plow through the line for the TD.

This time, the play was an option pitch to the left. Pinnock never got a good handle on the ball, fumbled for the second time of the day and Georgia's Thomas Davis recovered.

"We were running the option and the guy came off the edge quickly," Pinnock told The Associated Press. "I should have been expecting the pitch to come when it did. I dropped the pitch and we lost the game."

Another defensive contest, the game remained 3-0 Georgia until the fourth quarter. That lasted until defensive end David Pollack became a legend at Georgia by rushing Corey Jenkins as he attempted to throw from the end zone, stripping the ball and falling on it for a zero-yard, six-point interception return.

Still, USC needed less than two minutes of game clock for Jenkins to find Ryan Brewer with a 25-yard scoring pass. Billy Bennett kicked another Bulldogs field goal but USC stood to tie with a touchdown, win with an extra point.

Until that fateful pitch.

20-16 Georgia, 2004 Following a 31-7 Georgia shellacking in 2003, the two teams once again met in what would be the last year of coach Lou Holtz's tenure. It defined what was a lasting label for Holtz's final three seasons at USC -- good teams that couldn't finish.

"I think what's important is you have to learn how to win close games," Holtz said. "I think we will learn from this. This will be a good learning lesson for us. The important thing is, why did this happen?"

The answer was easy. USC had the big plays early and Georgia had them late.

The Gamecocks squandered a 16-0 lead -- set up by a safety, a 65-yard touchdown pass and a 57-yard interception return for a score -- as the Bulldogs scored 20 unanswered points. Yet, with just under 10 minutes to play, they still had three chances to win.

Dondrial Pinkins drove USC to Georgia's 17 with under seven minutes to go, but Greg Blue delivered one of the most vicious hits in series history to cause a fumble. The Gamecocks got the ball back on their own recovered fumble, but trying to gain a yard on fourth-and-1 from the 7, Pinkins was tackled short of the marker by DeMario Minter.

Yet, USC still had a chance, forcing a three-and-out and taking over with 3:13 to go. Pinkins got to the 50, dropped back, saw Matthew Thomas open in the middle of the field, fired -- and watched Tim Jennings tip the ball up and into Paul Oliver's arms.

Holtz left after the season. The agonizing losses to Georgia stayed.

17-15 Georgia, 2005 In Steve Spurrier's first trip to Sanford Stadium as USC coach, he experienced an unfamiliar feeling for him but one quite stuck in Gamecock minds. Spurrier had only lost once to the Bulldogs in 12 previous tries; this would become the first of four losses to the Bulldogs in his next five.

This time it was a missed PAT (something that would also haunt the Gamecocks four years later), a botched two-point conversion, 238 allowed rushing yards and a 27-yard gain on third-and-22 from Georgia's 8-yard-line. Sidney Rice caught five passes for 70 yards but couldn't stretch his body for the 3 yards necessary for a first down on the futile last drive.

"It was there to be had," a deflated Spurrier said. "If we could've been a little more sharp ... "

Georgia led 17-15 and had the ball at its own 20 with 6:52 to go, but USC pushed the Bulldogs back to the 8. That became that pass from D.J. Shockley to Bryan McClendon; although the Gamecocks got the ball back, they only had 1:11 on the clock and one timeout.

Blake Mitchell threw two incompletes and was sacked for a 9-yard loss. A pass to Syvelle Newton went for 8 yards and Newton pitched to Rice coming around the end, but Rice was tackled short of the sticks.

It ended a night where USC got Johnathan Joseph's interception return for a touchdown and an end-zone pick from Carlos Thomas, but saw Josh Brown kick a PAT into the upright and had a touchdown negated because Daccus Turman false-started. Although Thomas Brown and Danny Ware ran all over the Gamecocks' defense, USC stayed close, but couldn't find that one key stop to get itself over.

16-12 USC, 2007 A listless 18-0 defeat in 2006 became one of Mitchell's finest games the next season. He became the first and only USC QB to ever beat Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and Clemson during his career.

Ryan Succop delivered three field goals and Mitchell directed a conservative game plan, holding onto the ball as the Gamecocks' defense shut Georgia out of the end zone. Brutal hits at the goal line knocked one Bulldogs touchdown out of reach; a desperation pass from Matthew Stafford, trying for a miracle at the end of the game, became Jasper Brinkley's interception to clinch it.

"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."

This time, it was Georgia that couldn't take advantage of opportunity. Michael Moore let a touchdown pass bounce off his hands in the corner of the end zone and the Bulldogs false-started on the next play. Tripp Chandler dropped a pass to set up third-and-long, on which Stafford fired a bullet to Tony Wilson.

Wilson leaped at the same time as Carlos Thomas and Brandon Isaac, who sandwiched Wilson as he fell into the end zone. The ball wasn't with him.

Going back to Williams-Brice Stadium the next year, the hope was USC could turn it into another two-year winning streak. Instead ...

14-7 Georgia, 2008 Remembering how the 2007 loss kept them from playing for the SEC and national championships, the Bulldogs showed up ready to take back what they had lost. Knowshon Moreno's 4-yard touchdown run and Reshad Jones' interception of Chris Smelley with 13 seconds left inside the Georgia 10 did it.

And of course, there was that one chance USC had that it did not get.

On the 2 in the fourth quarter, Mike Davis took a handoff and leaped over the pile. Knowing he was going to be stuck at the top of the pile, Davis reached the ball out, trying to break the plane.

Rennie Curran knocked it loose and Georgia recovered. Following Pinnock's gaffe in 2002 and Mitchell trying to do the same in 2006, it was the third goal-line fumble in seven games against Georgia.

It was the third loss, too.

"He leaped and the guy hit him right on the ball, he just fumbled," Spurrier said. "I think they had us stuffed up."

Curran would raise another hand one year later.

41-37 Georgia, 2009 After a blocked PAT, a safety, a kickoff return for a touchdown and an interception return for a touchdown, Curran was still the game's biggest hero for one simple play.

Staring at Stephen Garcia trying to save the day with a last-second game-winning touchdown, Curran saw Garcia stare right past him toward the middle of the end zone and throw. Curran's left arm shot into the air, found leather and his head turned just in time to watch the ball flutter to the turf.

Because a PAT was blocked earlier that would have tied the game, USC was forced to go for the touchdown after the Bulldogs kicked a field goal with 6:20 to play. That PAT goes through, Garcia doesn't have to go for it on fourth down -- USC could have paged Spencer Lanning, who had already booted five field goals that night, hoped for a sixth and played overtime.

Instead, USC trailed four points, not three, forcing the touchdown try. Curran was in exactly the right place, negating a thrilling USC comeback and a game that featured almost everything but the kitchen sink.

2010 Previewing this matchup seems to give USC a rare opportunity. The game is at Williams-Brice, it's at noon (where the Gamecocks have historically won against Georgia while at home) and USC has the returning skill experience. The Bulldogs, despite a 55-7 romp in their season-opening win over Louisiana-Lafayette, may have game-breaking receiver A.J. Green suspended, and quarterback Aaron Murray is a redshirt freshman with one game of experience while tailback Washaun Ealey was suspended last week.

But it will most likely come down to that one possession. Scott and Brinkley won theirs. So many others in USC history did not.

"We don't get involved too much with everything that's happened in the past," Spurrier said on Sunday. "We'll see what happens here Saturday. It's a big game, one of the biggest we've had here in a while. Should be an exciting day."

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