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Chris White: Dogs’ defense finds resolve to survive scare

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Behind eyes red from an impassioned, tear-filled speech to teammates, an emotionally sapped Garrison Smith was as content as he had ever been after Saturday’s 23-20 victory over Florida.

AJ Reynolds/Staff, @ajreynoldsphoto
Georgia safety Corey Moore (39) tackles Florida wide receiver Quinton Dunbar (1) during the second half of the NCAA college football game between Georgia and Florida in Jacksonville, Fla., Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013. Georgia won 23-20.

For a half, Georgia’s defense looked like Florida had again brought out the best in the Bulldogs.

Georgia held the Gators to a measly three points in the first half, Smith had 2.5 sacks and Florida’s offense looked as miserable in person as on paper.

And then halftime rolled around.

The Bulldogs failed to stand their ground after an uncharacteristic turnover deep in their zone, couldn’t stop a Gators touchdown drive that began at midfield and allowed 17 consecutive points in the second half.

“I can’t measure exactly when, but there was some place where you could feel [the momentum] changed because their crowd got into it a little bit more,” defensive end Ray Drew said. “I can’t go back and recall it specifically because I was so caught up in the moment. We like to say the people in the stands have a degree of control over the game because their fans are in it and the momentum swings that way.”

For all it lacked in consistency as the Gators took over the game, the Bulldogs’ defense did show grit and resolve in turning back a shift that swallowed it up in back-to-back losses to Missouri and Vanderbilt. It stood up the Gators on their final possession, tilting the flow of the game back in the Bulldogs’ favor and forcing a punt that allowed Aaron Murray and the offense to run out the nearly nine minutes remaining in the game.

With red eyes and a voice even more hoarse than usual, Smith explained after the game that the thought of losing brought tears to the his eyes, and unable to remember the last time he let it flow, he began to cry while talking to his teammates late in the game.

“I just put my heart into it,” Smith said. “I just wanted to win that bad. Just tears of passion came out. I’m telling everybody we’ve got to win, we’ve got to dig down deep.”

Georgia has faced offenses it could have expected to outmatch this season, and those teams were also able to gash the Bulldogs for big yardage with embarrassing plays and make the secondary look like a sieve at times. North Texas, Tennessee, Vanderbilt. Now Florida had trimmed a 23-3 halftime lead into a three-point game and it looked like the Bulldogs were headed for more misery.

Part of Saturday’s trouble doesn’t necessarily have to rest solely on the defense. One of Florida’s touchdowns came on a drive that began at the Bulldogs’ 14-yard line. Another came on a 50-yard drive that left the Bulldogs with less-than-ideal field position.

“We were doing good the whole game, we just got put into some bad situations,” Smith said. “There was a sudden change in momentum, but I had confidence in this defense, that we’d do what we had to do.”

Whether it was the defense’s fault, someone had to answer because the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division isn’t given to the team that simply tried the hardest.

So just hanging tough was all Smith could have asked for from his teammates Saturday and the Bulldogs’ defense, with all its warts, found something it had been searching for.

“We didn’t have enough mental toughness to put the fire out [in previous games],” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “Today, the fire started and we went out and put it out to win the game.”

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