COLUMBIA, S.C. — There wasn’t a happier Bulldog in the tunnel underneath the west grandstand at Williams-Brice Stadium than Georgia’s Deandre Baker.
Standing against the cinder-block wall between two ice machines, Baker was the epitome of cool as a horde of reporters surrounded him to hear his thoughts on the the Bulldogs’ 41-17 win over South Carolina. His end-zone entrance shortcomings aside, the senior cornerback turned in a tone-setting performance against a pass-happy bunch of Gamecocks.
Baker finished with 6 tackles, 2 pass break-ups and a 55-yard interception return as he effectively shut down South Carolina’s world-class wideout Deebo Samuels. Of course, Baker could’ve had 56 return yards and added a touchdown to his worksheet if he had just hung on to the football all the way across goal line.
“I proved something today, but I didn’t really learn anything about myself,” Baker said in answer to one query. “I know I step up in big-time games. That’s just who I am. I do my thing in big games like this. So I just let everyone else do all the talking and let my work on the field speak for itself.”
Baker’s work on the field brought forth more than a few screams from his own bench, but those words weren’t very positive about what was otherwise a very positive performance.
“You mean dropping the ball?” Baker asked when the conversation turned to that. “Oh, yeah, I caught it.”
When Baker says “caught it,” he didn’t mean the ball. He meant it in the way of flak, or another four-letter word starting with an “h” and ending with double-Ls. It was his bench’s response to him dropping the ball before crossing the goal-line on what should have been a 56-yard interception return for a touchdown.
“It was everybody all at one time; the G.A.’s, everybody,” Baker said of who jumped him first. “I was just hoping that somebody from Georgia fell on the ball.”
Linebacker Juwan Taylor did. Here’s what happened:
Baker already had been flagged for interference on the Gamecocks’ opening possession when they tried to hit Rico Dowdle down the sideline again. But this time the ball bounced straight up in the air off Dowdle’s hands. The ever-alert Baker quickly snatched it out of the air and took off in the other direction, straight down the sideline.
Somewhere inside the 5, Baker started palming the football in his right hand. He simply let it drop an instant before crossing the goal line. A solid second or two later, Taylor came from behind and scooped up the ball and carried it into the end zone.
Baker said he actually had no idea he had done anything wrong until he got to the Georgia sideline and was jumped by coaches and teammates and informed that referees were reviewing it.
“Everybody was coming at me then,” Baker said.
Georgia head coach Kirby Smart was among them.
“We recovered it, thank goodness,” Smart said. “I told him after the play he dropped it before he crossed the line and he didn’t think he did. But I saw us recover it, so I wasn’t thinking about it too much. I figured we were OK.”
Taylor’s touchdown stood up, Georgia had a 7-0 lead just 37 seconds into the game and notice had been served.
“When you score on defense your probability of winning goes up about 80 or 90 percent,” Smart said. “So that was a big plus for us.
It wasn’t until a couple of plays later that the official ruling in the press box was changed from 56-yard interception return for a touchdown to 55-yard return/fumble/fumble recovery/1-yard fumble return for a touchdown.
That little episode behind him, Baker could revel in the good work he and the Georgia defense put in against a top-notch receiving corps and what surely will be one of the better passing offenses in the SEC this year. The Gamecocks came right after the Bulldogs’ preseason All-SEC corner with Samuel and several other of their capable wideouts early in the game.
“The young secondary held up well,” Baker said. “There’s still a lot of things we’ve got to work on mentally, but we played hard and competed and that’s all we’re looking for.”
With the lopsided outcome, Baker said a statement was made.
“Georgia football didn’t go anywhere, that’s the statement,” Baker said. “A lot of people have been talking about all the players we lost, but we’ve got new recruits and players who were backups last year and a lot of other players who can help us. So we just want to play and compete.”
And score a few defensive touchdowns, no matter who gets credit.