There are times when a single game takes on outsize significance. This was one of them.
On the surface, there is little if any reason to celebrate beating a 4-4 opponent that hasn’t won since September. And this game does not do a whole lot for Georgia in terms of the division race; all it does is enable them to keep pace with South Carolina and possibly move into the lead if South Carolina should slip later on down the stretch–which has not happened and may not happen. And with games against Auburn and Georgia Tech still to come, there is still plenty of time for Georgia to slip down the stretch.
But for some strange reason, Georgia has shown a shocking inability to win this one game. Going into this game, Florida had won three in a row by a combined score of 124 to 58. The long-range view was even worse: Florida had won 11 of the previous 13 and 18 of the previous 21.
This was a game in which Georgia was constantly inventing ways to lose. In 1992 Georgia scored to pull within 26-24 with about 6 minutes left in the game and needed only one more defensive stop; they never touched the ball again that day. In 1993 they had the winning touchdown (assuming that a 2-point conversion attempt had been successful) called back because a Florida player called timeout. In 1999 they fumbled when in position to kick a field goal and take a fourth-quarter lead; Florida went on to win that one 30-14. In 2000 they went in the space of only three plays from having a chance to go up 24-9 to being tied 17-17; Florida went on to win 34-23. They have been boatraced by vastly superior Florida teams; they have been shaded by average and even sub-average Florida teams.
Much better Georgia teams than this one have lost to much worse Florida teams than this one. 1992, 2002, 2003, and 2005 stand out as prime examples. Three times this decade Georgia played for the SEC championship; in none of those years did they beat Florida. In 2002 they started 8-0 and built a lead large enough to absorb the inevitable loss to Florida; in 2003 they made it only because of the vagaries of a tiebreaker system that involved BCS polls and the phases of the moon and even a vote of the other athletic directors; and in 2005 they made it with a lot of help from other teams.
Considering all of that, it becomes clear that Georgia was not just battling Florida this afternoon; they were also battling two decades worth of demons that had attached themselves to this game. Overcoming Florida was not that big a deal, but overcoming the demons required a BCS championship-level effort.
For a while it seemed as if the demons would once again have their way with Georgia. Everything that has gone wrong for Georgia in this game went wrong in spectacular fashion at the outset. Florida’s first play from scrimmage was a 72-yard strike from John Brantley to Jeff Demps. Only 7 1/2 minutes into the game, Florida would go for it on 4th-and-19 (Who on earth does that?) and score the game’s first touchdown. After Georgia kicked a field goal, Demps returned the ensuing kickoff 99 yards to put Florida up 14-3. The normally reliable Blair Walsh, who is coming unglued right before our very eyes, missed another field goal. (He would miss two field goals by the time it was all over.) And Aaron Murray had a pass bounce off a running back’s helmet and get intercepted.
And that was just the first half.
And then, this team that has found so many ways to lose this game, found a way to win.
The game turned on a play late in the first half as Georgia faced 4th-and-5 from the Florida 20. Mark Richt–the same Mark Richt who just a few months earlier had ordered a field goal on 4th-and-goal against Central Florida in the Liberty Bowl–rediscovered the nerve that had propelled him and Georgia to the top of the SEC during the early years of his administration. He had Aaron Murray take a shot at the end zone. Michael Bennett hauled it in, and just like that the Florida lead was cut in half.
One of the flaws of this year’s Georgia team is that they just don’t know how good they really are, and they have played like it for long stretches of the season. But on this day, perhaps even starting with this play, they began to believe.
Todd Grantham–say what you will about his end-of-game antics but his defense is playing better these days–made some second half adjustments and suddenly Florida wasn’t doing anything offensively. Chris Rainey, who has become a non-factor ever since Gainesville police revoked his texting privileges (“Time to die…Hello?…Hello?”) was a non-factor in this one. The entire Florida offense managed but 51 yards and one first down in the second half. Their second-half possessions: Punt, fumble, field goal, punt, punt, punt, turnover on downs.
Midway through the third quarter, Richt did it again. Trailing by a touchdown and facing 4th-and-6 from the Florida 14, he had Aaron Murray throw it again. Tavarres King outfought Florida defender Jaylen Watkins for the ball, and the score was tied at 17.
There was still some ugliness to come–another long kickoff return would set up a field goal to put Florida back in front–but by then it was clear that today would be different. A short Florida punt started Georgia off in Florida territory near the end of the third quarter, and Richard Samuel finished the drive with a 4-yard touchdown run that gave Georgia the lead for good.
With 5 1/2 minutes left in the game, Jarvis Jones sacked John Brantley on 4th-and-10, and Florida never touched the ball the rest of the afternoon. Thanks to some nifty running by Isaiah Crowell and Richard Samuel, Georgia was able to run out the clock. The game ended with the ball on the Florida 1.
Georgia spotted Florida a 14-point lead and did not blink. Their nerves did not fail them as they came back and won this one. That has been a huge reversal from what we have been accustomed to seeing from Georgia in recent years, in this game or in any other.
It was a flawed win over an average team, marred by special teams breakdowns and other mistakes. Mark Richt admitted to as much in the postgame press conference. But Georgia is long past the point of grading wins over Florida.
It was a flawed win over an average opponent. But it was much more than that. This game has taken on outsize significance to the Georgia program, largely because of all the pain that Florida has inflicted the past two decades. Put simply, this was a game that Mark Richt and Georgia had to win. And they did.