For all the worrying about Georgia’s quarterbacks in that ugly loss at LSU, its defeated defense was the bigger warning sign. It had been a long time since Jake Fromm was that bad, so it was reasonable to consider it an aberration. The defense, on the other hand, had shown cracks more than once this season.
That’s why it meant so much for Georgia on Saturday when its defense immediately let Florida and everybody else know things would be different this time.
Bulldogs linebacker Monty Rice punched the ball from Jordan Scarlett’s grasp. Teammate Richard LeCounte recovered it and returned it to Florida’s 13-yard line. The Bulldogs were in business.
That turnover, on Florida’s opening drive, set up Georgia’s first touchdown. An interception on Florida’s next drive halted a drive in Georgia’s end of the field. Two Florida drives, two turnovers and early notice that Georgia’s defense didn’t intend to be pushed around again.
It stayed that way until Georgia vanquished Florida 36-17 and washed away the stink from Baton Rouge. In a game that Georgia desperately needed, against an opponent that can put up points, the Bulldogs defense had its finest moment of the season.
The Gators gained just 275 yards, including 105 passing. Georgia had three takeaways and a forced a turnover on downs. The defense did all of the things they couldn’t do at LSU.
“It was really just getting back to work,” Georgia defensive back Tyrique McGee said. “It wasn’t doing anything different like drawing up new plays, but just getting back to playing grown man football and physical football and I believe we did that tonight.”
I believe it, too. In the first half Florida rushed for 110 yards on 23 attempts with a touchdown. After halftime they gained just 60 yards rushing on 14 attempts with no scores and they couldn’t pass, either.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart was, of course, a tougher critic.
“We played better (than at LSU), and that was a good team, but rushing defense was a concern,” he said. “Tackling. I get frustrated. I’ve got to reserve judgment until I watch the tape but there were so many times we had two people in the right position--one blocker, two people--and the guy with the ball beats the guy to the (edge).”
If it’s true that Georgia’s defense needs to play better against the run, there’s no question the unit overall was a lot better than at LSU. The defense did everything but score on Florida, and it nearly did that.
Georgia’s third takeaway came late in the third quarter, when McGhee stripped the ball from QB Feleipe Franks. That gifted the Bulldogs the ball at Florida’s 1-yard line. Georgia ended up getting seven cracks at scoring because of Florida penalties.
The Bulldogs netted zero yards before kicking a field goal for a 23-14 lead. They had squandered a chance to go up 13 near the end of three quarters. Despite giving up points, Florida’s players were lively on the sideline. They were still in it.
But Florida could manage only a field goal on its next drive. The Gators had a 20-yard run during the drive, and a Bulldogs pass-interference penalty put them at Georgia’s 32-yard line with a first down. The Bulldogs held.
Then Fromm came alive. He ended a 75-yard TD drive with 24-yard TD pass to Terry Goodwin. Georgia’s defense forced a three-and-out, and the Bulldogs responded with another TD.
That finished the Gators. Fromm was excellent against a good passing defense. But he got going after the Bulldogs shut down the best offensive opponent they’d played since Missouri.
It was possible the Florida game could be a repeat of Missouri and LSU for the Bulldogs. Like those teams, the Gators are content to play high-efficiency football. They are comfortable setting up third-and-short and converting them at a high rate. Usually the Gators don’t have to drive very far to score because they create good field position.
Those are the reasons the Gators were, in theory, a bad matchup for Georgia’s defense. The Bulldogs are vulnerable against opponents that can grind out yards on early downs and convert on third. The Bulldogs don’t allow many big plays, but they bend often and sometimes break.
They did neither against Florida. The Gators had one drive in which they gained more than 50 yards. That 14-play, 76-yard march in the second quarter ended with a touchdown that got Florida within 10-7.
Florida’s next two drives ended with punts. One went 18 yards and the other 14. But Georgia also had punted on consecutive drives. It was starting to feel like the Missouri game, with Georgia’s defense stopping the opposition and waiting for its offense to get its act together.
Finally, the Bulldogs fashioned another scoring drive. They went 75 yards in just 48 seconds before Smart elected to kick a 22-yard field goal with six seconds until halftime. I think it was a good call because running it’s risky to run a play in less than six seconds and, more than that, his defense had stiffened.
Smart had another decision to make when Georgia, leading 20-14, had a fourth down at Florida’s 38. A 54-yard field goal would be within kicker Rodrigo Blankenship’s range. Smart opted to punt.
“I felt like we were playing good in the second half outside of the first drive,” Smart said. “You want to play momentum there and play the field-position battle.”
I think that also was the right call. I’d think it even if the Bulldogs didn’t end up pinning Florida at the one-yard, leading to McGhee’s forced fumble. There was little indication Florida’s offense could sustain long drives or create many big plays.
The Gators got just three more points from there. The Bulldogs didn’t dominate on defense. There were some hiccups, which is going to happen against a good offense.
The Gators got the ball first after halftime and quickly scored a touchdown for their first lead. Franks passed to Freddie Swan for a 36-yard score, a rare big pass play surrendered by the Bulldogs. However, the Gators were aided by a 51-yard kickoff return to Georgia’s 48-yard line.
Georgia responded with its own quick touchdown drive — 72 yards in about three minutes, capped by Fromm’s 12-yard pass to Jeremiah Holloman, who also caught Georgia’s first TD pass. Georgia’s defense wasn’t hamstrung by field position again, and it responded by limiting the Gators to just the one field goal over their final five drives.
The Bulldogs flattened Florida with defense.
“Our attitude going into the game, I think we all knew what had to be done,” McGhee said.