UGA grinds down the Gators, eyes another SEC East title

Georgia spoiled us last year. Of their 12 victories en route to the College Football Playoff, 11 came by at least two touchdowns. Those Bulldogs had a separation gear, and they tended to separate early and easily. Example: They beat Florida 42-7 in the World’s Largest Outdoor Et Cetera last October, and the Gators scored last.

This was different. Georgia led only 13-7 after a first half that saw the Gators lose the ball twice and trailed early in the second half. Yes, Florida in Year 1 under Dan Mullen is better than it was in Year 3 under Jim McElwain, and the growing belief is that the Bulldogs, gifted as they are, aren’t the team of last year. (We say again: Roquan Smith, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel were generational players.)

The gap, shrinking though it has, remains a gap. A victory at Kentucky next week will clinch the SEC East. If this season has featured more prose than poetry, it nonetheless should lead back to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in December, and if one-loss Georgia can again become SEC champ Georgia, it will again grace the playoff.

The Bulldogs’ 36-17 victory over Florida here was something of a throwback. Abashed after the 36-16 pasting at LSU, Georgia returned to (old) school. The Bulldogs ran the ball hard early and cleared the way for Jake Fromm – that’s correct; not only did Justin Fields not start at quarterback, he didn’t play – to have his way with the Gators’ secondary. He completed 17 of 24 passes for 240 yards and three touchdowns.

Said Georgia coach Kirby Smart: “These guys are as tough as they come. They’re resilient. They had two weeks to hear about everything they’d done wrong, everything that’s wrong with them.”

Then: “We’re undoubtedly a work in progress.”

Georgia led 13-7 after a strange first half. The Bulldogs drove 71 yards, all but five on the ground, in what seemed an admission that the post-LSU criticism – that they had run the ball too seldom – was valid. Fromm was sacked on his second dropback, which led to the powerful surge netting only a meek 21-yard field goal.

Florida’s Jordan Scarlett fumbled three plays later. Georgia’s Richard LeCounte recovered and returned the ball to the Florida 13. Fromm’s first actual pass found Jeremiah Holloman in the end zone, the receiver having burst past cornerback C.J. McWilliams, who was counting on safety help that didn’t arrive.

It was 10-nil with not quite nine minutes gone, and the Gators’ second possession ended with a second turnover. Eschewing an open receiver in the flat, Feleipe Franks threw the ball directly to Tyrique McGhee, who plays for Georgia. Another touchdown and a rout akin to last season’s – the Bulldogs won 42-7, in case you missed it – might well have been on.

But D’Andre Swift was stopped on third-and-4, which was an odd call – isn’t third-and-4 a throwing down? – and left the door ajar for the Gators to begin their upward climb. They scored a touchdown on a 14-play drive that spanned 7:01, and with a minute left in the half the Bulldogs had managed 95 yards of offense, only 16 on their past three possessions. Still three points in arrears, Florida had begun to seem the stronger side.

Smart missed a timeout before Florida punted inside the final 80 seconds. He had two remaining, and not burning this one to save 30 seconds cost him. Four passes to tight end Isaac Nauta gained 66 yards and brought the Bulldogs to the Florida 14 with 15 seconds left. (Todd Grantham, the Florida defensive coordinator who was once Georgia’s DC, has long had trouble defending tight ends.) Georgia tried two more passes and, at 0:06, summoned Rodrigo Blankenship to boot a 22-yarder.

That made it 13-7, but another field goal didn’t change the game. A touchdown would’ve. Eighty-five seconds after halftime, Florida pulled ahead. Freddie Swain beat safety J.R. Reed on a 35-yard slant. The favored Bulldogs were behind.

Not for long, though. Fromm hit an unencumbered Charlie Woerner – again with the tight end! – for 35 yards down the right sideline. On third-and-2, Holloman outjumped Williams in the end zone to snag Fromm’s fade. Georgia had trailed for three minutes and two seconds. It wouldn’t trail again.

If we’re debiting Smart for the uncalled timeout in Half No. 1, we must credit his account for eschewing a 54-yard field-goal try in the second. Jake Camarda’s punt from the Florida 37 was downed at the 1. McGhee divested Franks, running from the shotgun, of the ball. Linebacker Tae Crowder plopped on it at the 1. And here you’re figuring, “Automatic touchdown, 13-point lead.” And here you’d be … wrong.

Georgia ran six plays – starting at the Florida 1, we remind you – and gained no yards. It was gifted a first down when the luckless Williams was called for interfering with Holloman, a penalty that appeared so insubstantial that Mullen was moved to protest at loud length, thereby drawing a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct and moving the Bulldogs closer still. And still they couldn’t muster a touchdown.

Two Fromm sneaks were snuffed. Elijah Holyfield was stopped on third down. Blankenship’s 18-yard field goal made the score 23-14, but still: His three 3-pointers had covered a total of 61 yards. (He had one trey from 55 yards in the Rose Bowl, you’ll recall.) That said, those field goals were the platform that allowed Georgia to ice it with two fourth-quarter touchdowns, one on Fromm’s pass to Terry Godwin, the other on Swift’s burst up the middle.

Said Holloman: “You’ve got to keep pushing. That’s how you win in the East.”

Said Godwin: “That’s who we are. We’re going to try to run the ball down your throat and break your will.”

Said Fromm: “Football is a tough game. It’s not easy. We haven’t played our best game, but when we do, it’ll be pretty scary.”

No, this wasn’t as jaw-dropping a performance as last year’s here, but the result puts Georgia again where it ought to be — tied atop the East with two league games to go, looking ahead to bigger and better. These Bulldogs probably wouldn’t beat last year’s Bulldogs head-to-head, but those teams aren’t apt to meet, are they?

[“source=ajc”]