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Sept. 12, 2009

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ATHENS, Ga. — After everything that happened over nearly four hours — the kickoff return for a touchdown, the interception for a TD, the safety, the blocked extra point, the 24 penalties — it all came down to one play, one make-or-break decision.

Rennie Curran took a step forward, thinking he would have to make a tackle. Then he stopped, stuck out his left hand and batted down the final pass of a wild night.

No. 21 Georgia had survived. Barely.

Curran broke up Stephen Garcia’s fourth-down pass from the 7-yard line with 22 seconds remaining, and the Bulldogs held off South Carolina 41-37 Saturday night.

“Man, it was a nail-biting play,” Curran said. “I was kind of put in a bind because it looked like Garcia was about to tuck it and run into the end zone.”

Instead, Garcia decided to throw his 53rd pass of the night to a receiver cutting behind Curran. The junior linebacker reached out and swatted the ball to the ground.

“I knew he liked to like to hit his tight end on that play,” Curran said. “I didn’t know whether to come up and try to hit him or stay back in coverage. As soon as I took a step forward, he lobbed it up and I was able to stick my hand out there and tip the ball down.”

The Bulldogs (1-1, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) avoided their first 0-2 start since 1996. South Carolina (1-1, 0-1) was hurt by a blocked extra point after its final touchdown, which prevented the Gamecocks from going for a tying field goal at the end.

The goal-line stand set off a raucous celebration for the relieved crowd at Sanford Stadium. Curran rolled on the ground with Brandon Boykin, who had a huge game for the Bulldogs. Bryan Evans did a somersault.

“So many things happened, I don’t even know where to start,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “The bottom line is, we got it done. We got it done at the end.”

Boykin set a school record with a 100-yard kickoff return and set up a score with an interception. South Carolina linebacker Eric Norwood returned an interception 35 yards for a TD. Spencer Lanning tied a Gamecocks record with five field goals, pulled off a fake punt but had that crucial extra point blocked. The Bulldogs took a safety when Ty Frix snapped the ball over the punter’s head and through the end zone.

“There were a lot of big plays all over the place,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. “We almost came back.”

Garcia completed 31 of 53 passes for 313 yards, with two touchdowns and an interception. Joe Cox, who heard reports during the week that he was suffering from a sore arm or shoulder and might not even start, threw for 201 yards and a pair of TDs, though he also gave up a score on the ill-advised throw to Norwood.

“We wanted this win more than anything,” Cox said. “It’s something that hopefully will give us some momentum.”

He also cleared up the questions about his health, saying he’s had a problem with his shoulder for about a year but there’s nothing that can be done surgically and it doesn’t affect his throwing anyway.

“I warmed up before the game, and it felt pretty good,” he said. “It didn’t bother me today.”

Everyone counted on a defensive struggle, based on the series history and the way the teams played in their season openers.

Neither team had scored more than 20 points on the other in the last five meetings. Besides, Georgia was coming off a 24-10 loss to Oklahoma State, while South Carolina had eked out an ugly 7-3 win over N.C. State.

Instead, this was a shootout right from the start. South Carolina raced to a 17-7 lead in the first quarter, but Georgia rallied for a 31-23 edge at halftime. The Bulldogs looked to be pulling away as they took the second-half kickoff and drove for another score, Cox hitting Michael Moore with a 4-yard TD pass to make it 38-23.

But Lanning hit his fourth and fifth field goals, sandwiched around Frix’s errant snap over Drew Butler’s head to give the Gamecocks another two points.

Then, South Carolina looked as though it had tied it up when Norwood reached up to grab Cox’s pass, racing the other way for a touchdown that pulled the Gamecocks to 38-37 with just under 13 minutes remaining. All that was needed was the extra point, a mere formality, right?

Wrong. DeAngelo Tyson reached up to swat away Lanning’s kick, keeping Georgia ahead. It was the only thing that went wrong for the South Carolina kicker, who connected on field goals of 21, 39, 22, 35 and 34 yards.

“He gave an effort when a lot of guys don’t want to give effort,” Richt said of Tyson. “They’ll say, ‘I can’t get it. Why try hard?’ But he tried hard and blocked it.”

When Georgia’s Blair Walsh knocked through his second field goal, a 42-yarder with 6:20 remaining, South Carolina needed a touchdown to pull it out. Garcia led the Gamecocks down the field, converting three straight times on third down.

But he couldn’t complete the comeback.

“It’s a heartbreaking loss,” Lanning said.