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Loran Smith: Gurley’s return, defensive improvement crucial for UGA’s final stretch

ST. SIMONS ISLAND — This island community, where no event attracts more attention than the annual Georgia-Florida weekend, was overwhelmed last weekend with Georgia students, many of whom arrived on Thursday.

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Tailback Todd Gurley rushed for 100 yards against Florida on Saturday.

Even without students, St. Simons is a Bulldog enclave. There are Bulldog images on display throughout the year. Only the harvest scene can challenge the red and black for supremacy. You see the Georgia “G” everywhere; trailer hitches, mailboxes and banners waving from porches.

The chant of the island as the partying reached a post-game crescendo Saturday evening was, “3-0.”

Bulldog fans haven’t enjoyed such dominance since the days of Vince Dooley, whose teams feasted on victory more often than not in the old Gator Bowl. For those who remember the Dooley era, there was appreciation for past victories, but there was also perspective, which had to do with an 8-minute drive after sunset Saturday and a defense that has shown marked improvement.

First the drive. For the moment, the Bulldog offense, making critical third-down conversions to move from its own 17 yardline to the Florida 14 and killing the clock in the process, replaces two former “drives,” emotionally. Lest we forget. How about 1981. Florida lead 21-20 when the Bulldogs went 95 yards in 17 plays to score with 2:31 left and win the game 26-21, the same score as in the miracle game in 1980. On this drive, which became known as ”The Drive,” Herschel Walker carried the ball 11 times. The next year, quarterback John Lastinger directed a 99-yard drive, which began in the third quarter and almost lasted through the fourth quarter for a 10-9 victory, a score that would be rousingly repeated and celebrated in the Cotton Bowl against Texas. “The Drive” in 1983, in the minds of many, trumped “The Drive” of 1981.

Now comes the latest version — Aaron Murray having to rely on the pass with the fatigued Todd Gurley not in peak playing condition. Third down conversions, precisely executed, none more skillful than the 7-yard catch by Rhett McGowan for a first down at the Florida 37. He catches the ball with the defense cocked to slam his 180-pound body backward. McGowan hesitated as the defense released its charge, dancing to the inside and deftly leaning away from contact to lunge for the first down.

We cannot fail to appreciate the defense at this juncture.

Much maligned, the Bulldog coaches seem to have found the right combination of defensive backs in the lineup. Shaq Wiggins seems to have grown up, even though a lapse after Georgia took the lead 7-0 following the opening drive allowed Florida to move from its own seven to the Georgia ten when he missed an assignment on a long pass play. However, the defense came up with a red-zone stop to complement the offensive production.

The defense later yielded on a 14-yard drive after an offensive turnover, something that most defenses likely would do. There was a safety and subsequently another short-field advantage for the Gators. It should be said that the defense could be credited with holding its opponent to fewer than 20 points, which is winning defense that any coach would appreciate.

The defense actually began to show noticeable improvement in the Vanderbilt game. Short field opportunity was a commonplace development for Vandy. A fumbled punt set them up for one score from the Georgia 36. A muffed snap on a punt gave the Commodores the ball at the Georgia 13. Then there was Ramik Wilson’s classic tackle early in the fourth quarter, which should have been a three-and-out situation.

You know the rest of the insulting story.

With time to work himself back into shape, Gurley’s return, and the defensive improvement, the season has an opportunity to end on an upbeat note.

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