In Georgia’s 24-17 win over Florida Saturday night, every play mattered. But on the sliding scale of importance, third downs ranked just a little bit higher.
The Bulldogs converted 12 of 18 third downs in the game, extending drives and coming up with enough points to power past the Gators in Jacksonville.
“We were able to convert some big third downs, some down and distances that they’ve been really good on third and long,” head coach Kirby Smart said. “(Tim) Tebow talked about it this morning on SEC Nation. It’s tough to convert those long-yardage third downs.”
The third down dominance manifested itself right out of the gate, as the Bulldogs picked up their first four third downs on the opening drive. The first two were conversions of third-and-14 and third-and-11, the first with a 15-yard pass to Lawrence Cager and the second with a 17-yard strike to Demetris Robertson.
Aided by those plays, Georgia’s opening drive took seven minutes off the clock and resulted in three points. All in all, the Bulldogs converted 8-of-11 third downs in the first half, holding the ball for nearly 20 minutes and ensuring the defense wasn’t worn down early.
“Any rest time for us is very good for us,” defensive lineman Jordan Davis said. “We get time to recover. We recover, we play harder.”
Georgia’s first touchdown of the game also came on a third down in the red zone. On third-and-goal from the Florida 3-yard line, quarterback Jake Fromm looked outside and connected with freshman receiver Dominick Blaylock, who powered into the end zone to put the Bulldogs on top 10-0.
The Florida defense stiffened after halftime, as Georgia converted just a single opportunity on third down in the first 15 minutes after intermission. But in the final period, the Bulldog clutch gene came to the forefront again.
The contest tightened up a bit first, as a Florida touchdown with 13:51 to play made the game 16-10 in favor of Georgia. The Bulldogs needed a response, but a couple of third down conversions were necessary first.
That task fell on the shoulders of running back D’Andre Swift. Far from being known as a power back, Swift muscled his way through defenders with what he called a “dog mentality” to pick up a pair of third-and-1s, allowing the drive to eventually end in a 52-yard touchdown pass from Fromm to Cager to push the lead back to 24-10.
“Nobody’s stopping us,” Swift said of the mindset on those plays. “No matter what we call, if it’s a run, you’ve just got to run hard, run through however many people you’ve got to run through to get that yard.”
With just over three minutes to play, Florida drew within a touchdown again at 24-17. Georgia took over needing a first down to seal the win, but faced a third-and-7 call with 2:53 left.
With no timeouts left for Florida, Smart contemplated a decision: run the ball and almost certainly give the ball back to Florida (albeit with less time) or take a chance and throw the ball, risking stopping the clock for a possible Gator drive.
Smart chose the latter.
“You try to win the game when you get an opportunity to, and that was our chance to win the game,” Smart said.
After having some coaching decisions come under scrutiny earlier this year, this one worked out for Smart and the Bulldogs.
Fromm stood in the pocket in the face of pressure and lofted a pass toward the right sideline and tight end Eli Wolf, who was running an out route. The graduate transfer tight end from Tennessee who had been targeted just once all game hauled in the pass and went down in bounds, putting the game away.
Smart said the play was called knowing that Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham would be playing man coverage. Wolf beat his man, and Fromm dropped a dime right into Wolf’s waiting paws.
“I asked (Fromm), ‘Why did you leave it hanging in the air so long?’” Wolf said. “He said he had a little pressure in his face, but it got where it needed to be.”
Wolf was available on the play because the coaching staff had decided the tight ends wouldn’t be used to help block Florida’s talented group of pass rushers. Offensive line coach Sam Pittman made that proclamation earlier this week and it held up, as the Bulldogs didn’t allow a single sack.
That allowed Fromm to have time on third downs, particularly third-and-long, to scan the field and find open targets. The quarterback said the team knew the Gators were going to throw some different coverages at them coming off a bye week, so it was up to Fromm to make plays.
“You’ve got to go play football,” Fromm said. “You’re not going to know every single coverage on third down or on first down. You want to, but that’s not reality. At the end of the day, you’ve got to go out and play football, you’ve got to find the open guy.”
The game ended, fittingly, on a third down, as a run from Swift lost two yards but also bled out the rest of the clock. While they didn’t pick that one up, the 12 third down conversions the Bulldogs had before played a pivotal role in the win and in keeping Georgia’s hopes of an SEC title alive.
“When you convert, it’s a dagger,” Wolf said. “We did a great job of executing on third down. We don’t win that game if we don’t because we were living on third down there for a while.”