The last time Georgia beat Florida for a second straight year, the Dallas Cowboys had just traded Herschel Walker for half of Minneapolis earlier that month.
Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray had a rough first half against Florida on Saturday, but his 45-yard touchdown pass to Malcolm Mitchell seemed to erase the fact that he threw three first-half interceptions.
Georgia took down No. 3-ranked Florida 17-9 on Saturday at EverBank Field to complete a back-to-back double for the first time since 1988-89. It was not only a rare win against the Bulldogs’ most-bitter rival, but also a signature victory that had eluded Mark Richt and his crew since 2007 that vaulted Georgia into the lead in the race to the Southeastern Conference Championship game.
The game wasn’t beautifully executed by either team. Ugly plays outnumbered pretty ones by a wide margin. But Georgia walked out of the stadium holding hands with the supermodel and Florida was left with the slumpbuster.
Georgia played God-awful on offense much of the game. It’s special teams were average at best. But Jarvis Jones and the defense showed up angry and full of vinegar. It’s fitting that the two most important plays of the game were made by the defense — Bacarri Rambo’s end zone interception and Jones’ strip of Jordan Reed at the Georgia 3-yard line.
Georgia woke up on Sunday morning with the inside track to the SEC East title and a second straight trip to the conference championship game. The Bulldogs’ ranking will surely skyrocket to the BCS elite classification.
But Georgia has had problems maintaining momentum in recent years. The challenge for the Bulldogs now that they’re in front is to stay there.
Georgia’s defense has earned a fair share of criticism this season. Slow starts, bad positioning and disturbing stretches of poor play had some observers wondering whether an internal rift had developed in Todd Grantham’s squad or they were merely overrated to begin with.
Georgia responded with its best defensive game of the year against Florida. The Bulldogs held the Gators out of the end zone and forced Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel into maybe the worst game of his career. Georgia created six turnovers, five sacks and held the No. 3 rushing offense in the league to less than half its average (81 yards).
But Georgia’s performance on Saturday had less to do with Shawn Williams’ words than with Jones’ return.
Jones wasn’t on the field when Georgia gave up 206 yards to Kentucky’s league-worst rushing offense last week. When Jones is healthy, Georgia’s defense plays multiple levels better. The injuries that cost Jones two games and curtailed his production in three others were probably more than just nagging.
On Saturday Jones played like his body felt good again and he took out a month’s worth of frustration on the Gators with three sacks, two forced fumbles and two recoveries.
Aaron Murray came within one vital pass of having the kind of performance in a critical game that stains an otherwise standout career.
Murray wasn’t just off-target for most of the game, he couldn’t hit a barn with buckshot unless it was painted Florida blue and orange.
Murray ended three straight drives with interceptions in the first half, including one at the Florida 9-yard line and another at the Georgia 23. Murray completed 12 of 24 passes and seemed jittery most of the game.
Murray has gotten away with forcing balls into coverage several times this season. But Florida was ready and some ham-handed moments by his receivers didn’t help the matter.
To Murray’s credit, he adjusted and started throwing the ball away in the second half instead of daring the Gators to pick it off. Although Georgia was dreadful on third-down conversions most of the second half, it didn’t turn the ball over.
Of course Murray and Malcolm Mitchell hooked up for a 45-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter that provided most of the difference on the scoreboard. That one play at a critical juncture erased most of stink of the previous three quarters.
Although Murray turned in a stat line to forget, he didn’t have the worst performance by a quarterback on EverBank Field that day.
Florida’s Jeff Driskel not only matched, but surpassed every one of Murray’s gaffes and unlike Murray, his didn’t end after halftime.
Driskel threw two interceptions and lost two fumbles to personally account for four of Florida’s six turnovers in the game. Although Florida penetrated Georgia’s 20-yard line four times, Driskel failed to convert any touchdowns. He finished with 14 completions in 26 attempts for 185 yards and two interceptions. He also got sacked five times.
Driskel’s worst sin came at the end of the first half. On first-and-goal from Georgia’s 5-yard line with 29 seconds left in the first half, Driskel gambled and threw into the most crowded side of the end zone. Rambo picked off the pass to rob the Gators of even a field goal that would give them the lead in their deepest drive until Jones ran down Reed at the end of the game. Rambo’s interception insured Georgia had a halftime lead (7-6) and changed the complexion of the second half.
Georgia (7-1, 5-1 in the SEC) returns home for the first time in a month to play Ole Miss (5-3, 2-2) at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday at Sanford Stadium.