Saturday’s renewal of the Georgia-Florida football rivalry took a surprising turn into the Dog’s Day of Atonement.
Georgia seemed intent on making amends for its myriad faults. As the EverBank Field clock flashed triple zeroes, the 17-9 score confirmed that Georgia had accomplished its goal.
That "soft defense" taken to task by strong safety Shawn Williams and skewered by journalists nationwide? Nowhere to be found.
The Dogs set their tone on the opening play, a vicious tackle by Kosta Vavlas on the kickoff. Quick to follow were a fumble and loss on Florida’s first play from scrimmage, and a lost fumble on the third.
"As a man, you’re going to take it personally," all-world linebacker Jarvis Jones told Edward Aschoff of ESPN.com. "We came out to show everybody that we have a great defense, and we can execute and be one of those teams leading the nation in defense."
Like they were last year, when they stirred memories of the legendary Junkyard Dawg defenses under Erk Russell. This year, the same unit had been mediocre at best. Aside from the fourth quarter at Missouri, the first quarter against Tennessee, and the Vanderbilt game, these guys have rested on their laurels.
The group that couldn’t stop a rushing attack all year held Florida to 81 paltry, hard-earned yards—134 below the Gators average.
"Shawn said what everybody else was already saying," head coach Mark Richt told Aschoff. "It bothered them enough to get after it."
This putrid defense became the first unit this season to deprive Florida of reaching the end zone. Georgia manhandled an offense that rang up 44 points on South Carolina a week ago, and reduced them to resembling Vanderbilt.
"A little confidence was lost," defensive coordinator Todd Grantham told Gene Frenette of the Florida Times-Union. "The swagger wasn’t there. We finally said, ‘Enough is enough.’ The biggest question I asked them? Are we mentally and physically strong enough to beat Florida?"
Indeed. A week ago, Kentucky’s backs zipped through gaping holes, unmolested, into Georgia’s secondary. Florida’s backs met resistance, usually five or six strong, near the line of scrimmage. Play after play.
Leading the charge was Jones, with 12 solo tackles, one assist, three sacks, two forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries. A defensive tour de force unseen in this rivalry since Bill Stanfill chased Steve Spurrier all over the Gator Bowl in 1966.
"This is the kind of game where you got to feed him to where the ball is going to be, and let him make plays," Grantham told Frenette. "The guy’s unbelievable. That energy he brings feeds our defense."
So stout was the Georgia defense that for the first time all season, it carried the Georgia offense.
Not that the Georgia running game was to blame. Largely abandoned the past two games, Todd Gurley came through with 118 yards on 27 carries, behind a maligned offensive line that spread out a Florida defense previously thought impenetrable.
"I had great blocking all day. I couldn’t have done it without those guys," Gurley told cstv.com after the game.
Presumably the blocking was equally effective for quarterback Aaron Murray, but he resisted success. Murray completed seven of his eight first half passes, including three to the Gators.
It seemed like a repeat episode of Murray making big mistakes in a big game. But Richt gave a very calm analysis of Murray’s performance on CBS at halftime, and offensive coordinator conveyed the same thoughts to Murray at the half.
"I told him, ‘Hey, it’s 7-6. We’re winning the ballgame. Let’s go play the game. Relax,’" Bobo told David Ching of ESPN.com.
So, when a Florida field goal cut Georgia’s lead to 10-9 with 9:41 to play, Georgia placed the ball in Murray’s hands. He promptly completed four of six for 80 yards, including the clinching 45-yard catch-and-run to Malcolm Mitchell.
Pressure performance? "A guy came clean and was right in Murray’s face," Richt told Ching. "I don’t even know how he got the ball by him."
Mitchell himself atoned for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty incurred three plays earlier. "That was the best feeling, just to know that everybody was so excited and happy," Mitchell told Ching.
None happier than Richt, who won a big, big game against the second-ranked team in the country, while becoming the first Georgia coach since Vince Dooley to beat the Gators in consecutive seasons. He also brought a team filled with heart, desire, fire, and passion into the game, at a time when his team seemed incapable of playing with any emotion at all.
"Deep inside of him, I know it was a great win for Coach," linebacker Jordan Jenkins told Frenette. "It’s definitely a happy moment to shut some of those naysayers up."
They’ll quiet quite a few more if they keep playing like this.