JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Jarvis Jones joked that all he gained in two weeks of sitting out of practice was a couple pounds.
Certainly he didn’t pick up any cobwebs.
The All-American linebacker returned to the field on Saturday and led the No. 12 Bulldogs to an elusive win over a top-10 team with a 17-9 victory over No. 3 Florida, and more importantly, kept alive a shot at returning to Atlanta for the SEC title game.
“I felt like today I had this time off and guys looking up to me to be their leader and to be that person to make that big play to get my guys rolling, and I was able to do that and it sparked a lot of energy for them,” Jones said. “And once I got rolling, they went to rolling.”
Jones’ monster presence is backed up by some monstrous numbers. He finished with 13 tackles — a dozen of them solo — three sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
This all came against a team that had turned the ball over four times to that point in the season.
“That’s Jarvis. We’re used to that,” said defensive back Damian Swann, who in his own right played a big role in getting the Bulldogs’ defense going by forcing a fumble on Florida’s first drive. “He tells us every drive before we go out there that we have to step up to the challenge and play as one. Jarvis is our leader. … When Jarvis has a good game, we all do.”
EverBank Field has now been home to two of Jones’ biggest games. A year ago, he had four sacks, five tackles and a forced fumble as the Bulldogs defeated Florida 24-20.
Maybe this year’s performance was fueled a bit by Williams’ harsh comments about his teammates’ all-too-often-emotionless play. Maybe it was the big-game atmosphere. Maybe it was all the talk of Georgia’s dismal record against top-10 teams, going 1-9 against them since the beginning of the 2008 season. Maybe it was all the waiting and watching he had to do while nursing his injuries.
Whatever it was, Jones woke up on Saturday and he was hungry.
The rest of Georgia’s defense was, too, actually. The Gators had not committed a turnover in 10 quarters before Saturday’s game, a streak Georgia snapped on Florida’s first drive. The Gators’ offense had been largely one-dimensional, relying heavily on the run and strong special teams play, and Georgia read it well enough to keep it that way most of the day. It was, to be fair, a victory for the Bulldogs’ entire defense.
But no one had the impact Jones did in the most important game of the Bulldogs’ season, and arguably in his life. And it couldn’t have come at a better time for a Georgia team that appeared to be sagging in some aspects as the season went on.
The Bulldogs were ranked in many defensive categories among the country’s best, and with several players, including Jones, forgoing the NFL Draft to return for another year, the hype they received leading up to the start of the season was well deserved.
But things fizzled. There were suspensions, injuries like those to Jones and the miscommunications players mentioned week after week. It all boiled over on Monday with Williams speaking out to the media about the team’s defensive efforts, calling them short of emotion and even questioning coaches’ decisions on playing time.
Yet what could have been a divisive comment turned out to bring things together, Jones said.
“I said (to teammates), ‘You know, week in and week out, you all see what we have here,’” Jones said. “’You all know the reason you cam back here. That’s the defense I know. Therefore, I expect nothing less. I expect us to come out here and play lights out from the beginning to the end.’”
Jones suffered a strained groin during practices the week before the second game of the season, when Georgia traveled to play Missouri — a team he helped slay with an interception and a forced fumble the Bulldogs quickly turned into 14 points — and he had been awfully quiet since then. On Saturday, he spoke up and was heard loud and clear.
“He really led for us,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “He led for us obviously on the field, but he was more vocal in this game than any I’ve seen him. He wanted this badly. He did a good job of just keeping the intensity up, because he knew what it was going to take, and I’m just really happy for his performance. I’m just glad that he’s a Georgia Bulldog.”