The case for 2000 as USC's best Georgia win
Lou Holtz's first marquee win as South Carolina head coach is too often overshadowed by more recent successes.
When South Carolina fans are counting up their favorite Georgia wins, 2011 and 2012 seem to get most of the love. And understandably so! They were important wins during two of the best seasons in USC football history. The games featured unforgettable plays and unforgettable players. And on the other side of both wins, we were greeted by the promise — though fleeting — of contending for national championships.
Carolina’s three-game winning streak over Georgia at the beginning of the last decade came during a period in which the Gamecocks clearly had the better program. But having the better program has not always been a necessary condition for beating Georgia. Indeed, some of the most satisfying Georgia wins have come during seasons where USC’s role was that of spoiler to the Bulldogs’ lofty ambitions. The games from 2006, 2014, and 2019 quickly come to mind.
The 2000 game is rarely thought of as a massively improbable upset. But I think that’s because our perceptions of that game have been colored by what happened next. Lou Holtz coached South Carolina to its best season since 1984 and Jim Donnan got fired. But when the Gamecocks and Bulldogs took the field on Sept. 9, 2000, there was only a single win over a bad New Mexico State team standing between Carolina and a 21-game losing streak. Georgia came in ranked No. 9, with one of the most fearsome defensive lines in the country and rising junior Quincy Carter at quarterback. UGA was returning 19 starters and Bulldog fans were convinced it was “now or never,” to win the SEC East — something they still had still never achieved. Even in a season with Michael Vick and Drew Brees returning, Carter was still widely seen as a viable Heisman Trophy contender. As one paper put it, Georgia fans hadn’t been this excited “since Herschel Walker.”
In all of South Carolina’s goofy wins over Georgia, none was a bigger bolt from the blue. It was almost three years since USC had beaten any SEC team. It was almost four years since USC defeated a ranked opponent. It was almost 12 years since USC had knocked off a team in the top 10. When UGA entered Williams-Brice Stadium, the field and the hedges that stood at its perimeter were still battered and bruised from the previous week, when fans celebrated the end to the most inept spell in program history.
After the first drive of the Georgia game, it looked like the jubilation begun the previous week would be short-lived. Relying heavily on the triple-option, Qunicy Carter and the Georgia offense methodically sliced through the USC defense and went up 7-0. But then a few things happened that changed the trajectory of both teams’ seasons.
1) Derek Watson finally arrived
Derek Watson made one heck of a first impression at South Carolina, dodging N.C. State defenders and rainfall from Tropical Storm Dennis on his way to 118 yards on 15 carries. For the remainder of the 1999 season, however, Watson averaged just 2.87 yards per carry on 96 attempt and didn’t score a single touchdown all year. So by the time the 2000 season rolled around, there was at least as much reason to worry about his future as there was to be hopeful. But Watson quickly put any lingering concerns to bed with a dazzling three-touchdown performance against Georgia.
All afternoon, Watson picked up chunk after chunk on delayed handoffs from Phil Petty and kept plays alive with his ability to bounce a run to the outside and make defenders miss. After the game, Holtz compared Watson to “Sanders of Detroit” and said that “he’ll take a no-gain and turn it into a 30-yarder, but sometimes he’ll take a four-yard gain and turn it into one as well.”
Though it was Watson’s ball-carrying that put all of South Carolina’s points on the board, it was his slipperiness as a kick returner kickoffs that gave the Gamecocks the spark they needed after Georgia’s opening touchdown drive. Watson caught the Bulldogs’ kickoff at the four-yard line and executed a vicious spin move around the 15 followed by a juke at the 30 that opened up a bunch of running room on the left side of the field and put the Gamecocks in good position with a short field.
A few plays later, Skip Holtz delivered the payoff of having previously run a reverse to Ryan Brewer by faking to Brewer and handing off to Watson, who outran a freakishly athletic Georgia defensive line to make it to the outside and find the end zone.
And that brings me to the next big thing that happened.
2) Skip Holtz called one hell of a game
I am not sure what has poisoned my brain against Skip Holtz’s South Carolina offenses. Perhaps my memory has spent two decades under the influence of the last few Holtz seasons (for which Skip wasn’t even the offensive coordinator). Maybe it’s Skip’s strange, Benjamin Button-like career, where he keeps taking steps down the FBS coaching ladder despite always being pretty successful wherever he goes. It could be that I’ve spent too much time looking at old box scores, removed from the context of the environment in which his USC offenses operated.
Whatever the reason, when I put the 2000 Georgia game on, I was as absolutely stunned at how fun this offense was. It wasn’t just fun — it was clever in a way that called to mind the games (like 2012 Georgia) when Steve Spurrier was just on. Georgia’s defense was absolutely loaded with guys like Richard Seymour and Marcus Stroud, who went on to have long NFL careers; they were strong, fast, and aggressive — and Skip was content to use those strengths against them by basically building an entire offensive gameplan out of constraint plays. Georgia’s defensive front kept rushing upfield, and Skip kept calling draws and screens to attack the space that had opened up behind them.
You might have thought it would stop working at some point, but it just … didn’t.
The 21-10 scoreline and 287 yards of total offense actually undersell how well the offense moved the ball for most of the day. USC left a lot of points on the field, with a missed field goal, a Phil Petty pass intercepted in the end zone, and only one of four makeable fourth down attempts converted. Until Watson put the game away with his third touchdown run, it felt like those missed opportunities might come back to haunt South Carolina.
But Charlie Strong’s unit deserves most of the credit for ensuring that the ghost of field goals missed never showed its face.
3) Charlie Strong’s defense was relentless
If I had to summarize the 2000 Georgia game in one play, it would be this:
The Gamecocks took away Carter’s first read, and by the time he found the out route, Andre Goodman was able to close down the pass, pick it off, and take it back inside the 10. It’s Carter who was able to get back and make the tackle, but he swings Goodman to the ground for no reason after he’s already out-of-bounds.
Carter would spend the rest of the day being denied good choices by South Carolina’s swarming defense, making bad decisions instead, and then — in his frustration — compounding the previous bad decision with yet another bad decision. Carter was completely befuddled by Charlie Strong’s zone blitzing. The best evidence of said befuddlement is that two of Carter’s five interceptions were made by Dennis Quinn, a defensive lineman dropping back into coverage.
Because of the aforementioned profligacy inside Georgia’s 40-yard line, South Carolina was struggling to put the game away. That changed with six minutes left in the fourth quarter when Rashad Faison picked Carter off at the Georgia 42, setting up the drive that ended in Watson’s third touchdown. The pick made it INTs on back-to-back passes for Carter. But he wasn’t done turning the ball over yet.
Two passes later, Quinn picked off Carter for the second time, and South Carolina was able to kneel it out.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to To Thee, Forever Ago to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.