JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — There was no circling the stands with a Georgia flag. The whooping and hollering was brief and kept to a minimum. Some people even were shaking their heads.
That’s how this rivalry was changed. Once upon a time Georgia greeted wins over Florida with unmitigated joy. This time it was relief.
Not to mention frustration that it was so close, merely a 23-20 win in which the Bulldogs had to hold on after starting out with a commanding lead.
“We about lost the doggone thing,” Georgia head coach Mark Richt said. “That’s why I’m subdued right now, because I’m trying to get over it.”
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Quarterback Aaron Murray put it another way.
“It seems like every week this is happening,” he said.
It wasn’t impressive. Georgia only wheezed to the finish. But it finished.
In a disappointing season that has been derailed by injuries, Georgia got its star back. Todd Gurley propelled his team to an early lead, and then the Bulldogs just held on, needing some breaks along the way.
“It makes you wonder if this is really a way to make a living,” Richt said.Still, the final result was a third straight victory over Florida, the first time the Bulldogs have pulled that off since 1987-89.
Former Georgia head coach Vince Dooley dropped by to speak to the Bulldogs during the week, and that was one of the things he mentioned. Richt was unaware it had been that long.
“I was, quite frankly, embarrassed that was the truth,” Richt said. “But that’s where this series has gone. It’s nice, at least to this point, to get it turned around a little bit.”
At one time, Richt was 2-8 against Florida and 1-2 against even Ron Zook. Now he’s unbeaten against Will Muschamp.
Murray also finishes his career 3-1 against the Gators, only the third quarterback in program history with at least three wins against them. Murray’s third-down completion to Rhett McGowan late in the game was the key play in a 15-play, 67-yard drive that lasted 8:17 and ended the game.
“It was pound the ground, old-school football,” junior receiver Michael Bennett said. Bennett was one of two key players making his return. He was important, leading the team with five catches. But Gurley was the most critical addition to Georgia’s lineup.
The sophomore tailback racked up 187 total yards on 20 touches, including a 73-yard catch-and-run, which put Georgia ahead 14-0. Gurley, who missed the previous three games with a sprained ankle, scored both of Georgia’s touchdowns.
“He helped a little bit, didn’t he?” Richt said. “He played so well those first couple of series. It was so good to have him back.”
“Todd, he’s a Heisman candidate if he doesn’t get hurt,” Bennett said.
After one half, Georgia was set to run away with it. Marshall Morgan’s third field goal made it 23-3 entering halftime, and with Florida’s struggling offense (entering the game ranked 109th nationally in total yardage), it seemed all but over.
But the Bulldogs, as they have this year, let their opponents back in it.
Midway through the third quarter, Georgia faced third-and-long. Murray tried a short pass to Arthur Lynch, who dropped it and grabbed his helmet in frustration. The only problem is it was a lateral, making it a free ball. Florida pounced on it.
It was the break Florida needed to make it a game as it scored a touchdown to get back in it.
Then when a punt pinned Georgia at its 3, the Bulldogs opened by trying play-action, but Luchez Purifoy came on a cornerback blitz, resulting in a safety.
The ensuing punt was returned to midfield. Georgia’s reeling defense let Florida’s suddenly resurgent offense score in less than two minutes, with quarterback Tyler Murphy rushing in from 14 yards out. The two-point conversion, on a steady throw by Murphy, made it a three-point game.
Georgia’s ensuing drive stalled, and Richt took a big chance, going for it on fourth-and-1 from his 39. Gurley took a direct snap and went left but didn’t have the speed to get to the outside. He was stopped a few inches short.
Florida was flagged for a player taking off his helmet, but that only pushed the Gators’ offense 15 yards back. Still, it was yet another penalty for a Gators team that would cost itself even more later.
But first Georgia’s defense came up with one of its biggest plays of the year. Florida faced third-and-12, and Georgia safety Corey Moore blitzed. He was untouched up the middle, bringing Murphy down for a 14-yard loss.
“They had the ball back at midfield with a chance to win it, and we stopped them,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “So the bottom line is we won the game, and I think we showed the kind of mental and physical toughness that I’ve always preached about that you’ve gotta have to win in the SEC.”
Georgia’s offense, dormant since the first half, took the field again. What ensued was a methodical drive, using up clock, getting into Florida territory. Then on third-and-7, Murray rolled right and saw receiver Rhett McGowan open near the sideline. Murray hit McGowan, who leaned past the 30 for the first down.
“I’m just happy Coach put the ball in my hands,” Murray said.
Florida had to burn its second timeout with 2:09 left.
Three plays later the Gators seem to have the Bulldogs stopped on third down, forcing either a field goal attempt or a fourth-down decision. But Darius Cummings was called for illegal hands to the face. It handed Georgia the first down, and the game.
As he ran out of the press box, Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo yelled, “How bout that Loran! That was a drive for your (butt).”
So in one quarter at least, there was sheer joy.