JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Georgia has turned its season around, lifted during the week by Shawn Williams and on Saturday night by Jarvis Jones.
In a penalty-filled, turnover-ridden game, Georgia just made fewer key mistakes. And by beating arch-rival Florida 17-9 on Saturday, the Bulldogs put themselves back in prime position to win a division championship.
And for good measure, the Bulldogs beat the Gators in back-to-back years for the first time since 1989. And they got their first win over a team ranked in the top five since 2006.
Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray struggled, getting picked off three times in the first half. But Georgia’s defense answered with its best effort of the season, responding after Williams’ declaration earlier in the week that it was “playing soft” and had been distracted. The Bulldogs forced six turnovers and sacked Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel five times.
Jarvis Jones had a monster game, racking up three sacks, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and 4.5 tackles for loss — along with a game-high 13 tackles.
“Shawn issued us a challenge this week, and everyone stepped up to it,” Jones said.
The other outside linebacker, freshman Jordan Jenkins, also had a big day, with numerous quarterback pressures and hits.
“A very emotionally charged football game,” head coach Mark Richt said. “And I’d rather try to curb that than have no life.”
Richt returned to Williams’ comments several times during his postgame news conference.
“They had been accused of some things that guys didn’t like being accused of,” Richt said. “And I think that helped motivate them. I don’t think there was another game this year where we quite came out of the gate the way we did this one. Maybe Vanderbilt, where I think some guys were a little bit mad about some things that happened the year before. So I gotta do a better job of figuring out how to motivate, I guess.”
Florida drew within one point with 9:41 left, as place-kicker Caleb Sturgis nailed a 50-yard attempt. Florida set it up with a draw play on third down, confident both in Sturgis’ leg and its ability to get another score.
But Georgia’s offense came through, with the help of the replay booth and a key Florida penalty.
The Bulldogs drove to midfield, helped on the series by a third-down holding penalty against the Gators. On second down from midfield, officials initially ruled that Malcolm Mitchell had dropped a 5-yard pass. The Bulldogs began to run a draw play on third down, only to have the play whistled dead because the officials wanted to review the play.
After a minute, the play was ruled a completion. It was only 5 yards, but Georgia decided to change the play call, and it decided the game.
Murray hit Mitchell on a short comeback pattern, and then Mitchell got free from the defense and cut upfield. He shook off a tackler inside the 10 and barreled into the end zone. Georgia had its biggest lead of the game with 7:11 left.
The play was also immediate redemption for Mitchell, a sophomore, who two plays earlier had been called for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty. Mitchell had taunted a Gators defender after a catch and a first down, pushing Georgia back to the 50.
The game, however, wasn’t quite over yet. The Gators’ offense moved downfield, finally able to run the ball on the Bulldogs. And with the two-minute mark approaching, Driskel hit receiver Jordan Reed over the middle, and Reed approached the end zone, attempting to leap in from the 4.
But from behind came Jones. The star linebacker reached over and hit Reed, popping the ball loose into the end zone. Georgia cornerback Sanders Commings hopped on it near the back of the end zone, basically sealing the victory.
“All we’ve done is give us a chance to play (Mississippi) and make it meaningful,” Richt said of this week’s game. “We know there’s a lot of work to do. And the guys were saying it before I could even say it, so that’s a good sign.”