Ron Morris

Morris: First quarter was best ever played by USC

rmorris@ thestate.comOctober 7, 2012 

South Carolina Gamecocks wide receiver Ace Sanders (1) returns a punt for a touchdown in the first quarter of their game against Georgia at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, SC.

GERRY MELENDEZ — gmelendez@thestate.com Buy Photo

SOUTH CAROLINA will win the national championship ... if it plays the remainder of the season like it did the first quarter of Saturday’s dominating victory against Georgia.

Based on that one quarter of sterling play, USC should march five spots up to the top of the national football polls. It was the greatest quarter of football played by a USC team. I challenge you to name one better, particularly considering it came against the nation’s fifth-ranked team.

“The whole team played super, I tell you,” Steve Spurrier said. “If we can play like this, we may have a chance for a real good year. May. Who knows if we can continue playing like this.”

By the time the first 15 minutes had expired on the Williams-Brice Stadium scoreboard, the game’s outcome had been decided. USC had secured its first win in a game involving a pair of top-10 teams.

The statistics were staggering. USC piled up 10 first downs. Georgia had two. USC rolled up 177 yards of offense. Georgia had 39. USC’s first two possessions went 76 and 69 yards for touchdowns. Only the game clock expiring at the end of the quarter could stop the other drive. Georgia’s three drives went for 13, 2 and 19 yards.

This first-quarter demolition of Georgia went beyond the numbers. As coaches like to say, USC beat Georgia in all three phases of the game. That happens when players make big plays, and USC had enough of that variety to last a season.

“We came out of the gate rolling,” quarterback Connor Shaw said.

“Honestly, I wasn’t expecting that,” running back Marcus Lattimore added. “I expected it to be a dogfight the whole game. But we came out with a fire we need to come out with every week.”

The Gamecocks set the tone on the second play from scrimmage when Shaw lofted a pass that wide receiver Damiere Byrd wrestled away from Georgia cornerback Bacarri Rambo. The play covered 42 yards. Three plays later, USC was in the end zone.

On its next drive, one that featured Lattimore runs totaling 21 yards and a pair of pass receptions for 24 more, Spurrier called for one of his pet plays. Tight end Rory Anderson ran a drag route over the middle and found himself alone in the end zone for a touchdown reception that covered 14 yards.

Then there was Ace Sanders’ 70-yard punt return for a touchdown. Sanders is fast becoming one of the most dangerous returners in the country. His spectacular 49-yard return to set up a touchdown against Missouri had nothing on this one. Sanders first bobbled the punt, quickly eluded two Georgia defenders and juked another before finding the sideline and ultimately the end zone.

The return was no more breathtaking than the play of USC’s defense throughout the game, but particularly in the first quarter.

On Georgia’s third play, tackle Kelcy Quarles deflected an Aaron Murray pass high in the air and into the waiting hands of DeVonte Holloman. Typical of the defense’s play was when end Jadeveon Clowney introduced himself to running back Todd Gurley in the Georgia backfield for a 2-yard loss.

Georgia entered the game boasting of a running back tandem of Gurley and Keith Marshall that Bulldog faithful tagged “Gurshall” in honor of Georgia great Herschel Walker. USC bottled the two up to the point they might as well be known now as “Shallgur,” or whatever stands for stymied running game.

Gurley ran for 15 yards on his first carry. But by the end of the first quarter, the tandem had 13 yards rushing. Georgia’s vaunted quarterback, Murray, completed two passes for 26 yards with the one interception in the quarter.

What happened after the first quarter was largely irrelevant. We have come to expect close games in this annual affair. Heck, 10 of the 20 previously played since USC joined the SEC were decided by a touchdown or less.

Not this one. USC hit Georgia with a sledgehammer early that Georgia apparently never saw coming. It is a knockout blow like no one USC has ever delivered before in a game of this magnitude.

“We went out and hit them in the mouth early,” Lattimore said, “and that’s what we’ve got to do.”

If USC plays like that the rest of the way, a national championship just might be in the cards.

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