JACKSONVILLE — Unfortunately for Florida, what the folks in Athens have been anticipating all season, not so patiently by the way, finally showed up Saturday at TIAA Bank Field.
Led by quarterback Jake Fromm, the Georgia Bulldogs finally looked, played and handled themselves like a College Football Playoff team, the kind everyone thought they were going to be heading into the season.
The No. 6 Gators, on the other hand, did not look, play or handle themselves like one. As a result, the No. 8 Bulldogs (7-1 overall and 4-1 in the SEC) pinned a damaging 24-17 loss on Florida before 84,789. UF no longer controls its own destiny in the East race.
The Bulldogs are now in command for the division title.
But there’s still a lot of ball to be played. That’s the message UF coach Dan Mullen delivered to his players in a downcast postgame locker room.
“A lot, right?” Mullen said. “There’s a lot of football still left to be played in the league. Division hasn’t been clinched by anybody, it wasn’t going to be clinched today by anybody. So, you know, whether we won or lost the game, next week’s game is a really big game for us. That’s how it works.”
The loss certainly doesn’t eliminate the Gators in the division race. But now, they have to win out (Vanderbilt and at Missouri) and hope that Georgia (Missouri, at Auburn and Texas A&M) loses two more conference games. Realistically, that’s now the only path to Atlanta for Florida.
“We have to finish the season strong,” said quarterback Kyle Trask, who threw for 257 yards and two touchdowns. “This is going to be a big character moment for us.”
The Gators had hoped to start out strong and fast Saturday against the Bulldogs, but that didn’t happen. They looked out of sorts instead, having to call two timeouts in the game’s opening possession, getting called for a false start on a third-and-one from the UGA 40, then Trask throwing incomplete on four-and-one from the same spot one play later.
UGA then set the tone for the day, putting together a field-goal drive where the Bulldogs converted four of five third-down plays to possess the ball and score points.
It was like that for most of the rest of the game, the ‘Dogs converting third downs and burning clock, and building a 16-3 lead early in the third quarter.
For the game, UGA converted 12 of 18 third downs, which the Gators converted just two for nine. That was the difference in the game. The Bulldogs were gold on the money down, while UF was close to bankrupt.
“We didn’t get off the field on third down,” Mullen said. “We called a lot of different defenses. There’s a lot of different answers for why they were good on third down. There’s not one thing. There’s a lot of different ones.”
The biggest factor of all is the fact the UF defensive front put zero pressure on Fromm, who had a clean pocket for the whole game and plenty of time to go through his progressions and find the open receivers. As a result, he carved up the Gator secondary, completing 20 of 30 passes for 279 yards and two touchdowns.
His biggest completion of the day was a 52-yard TD pass to Lawrence Cager on a busted coverage that gave the Bulldogs a 24-10 lead with 10:01 left in the game.
The sudden strike came only minutes after the Gators had gotten back in the game with a 23-yard touchdown pass from Trask to Van Jefferson that had made it a one-score game, 16-10.
"That was a big one,” Mullen said. “Both their touchdowns were busted coverages. That’s just mental. I mean being disciplined, being exact, being where we’re supposed to be."
As bad as things had gone for much of the game, the Gators stayed in it with a 17-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that culminated in a 2-yard TD pass from Trask to Freddie Swain to make it a 24-17 game with 3:11 left to play.
The problem is the drive took almost eight minutes off the clock.
“When you’re down two (touchdowns), you’ve got to score once first,” Mullen said. “So, let’s make sure we put a solid drive together and get the touchdown first, and we did that and that’s kind of the whole thought that goes into that. Don’t panic, don’t need to panic, run our offense, execute our offense, let’s take it down the field. We executed clean, we punched it in.
“I thought we played OK on offense at times. Just some mistakes kept setting us back at different points in the game, and, obviously, we only ran 52 plays offensively so that’s not very good. Needed to stay on the field better on offense and get off the field better on defense.”
The Bulldogs, appropriately, sealed the win with one final third-down conversion — a 22-yard pass from Fromm to tight end Eli Wolf on third-and-seven from the Georgia 35 that allowed it to run out the rest of the clock.
“We had belief the whole game,” senior linebacker David Reese said. “We just needed one stop (on the 52-yard TD pass that came on third-and-one). We didn’t get that unfortunately. And we needed a stop late and we didn’t get that. It sucks.”
Who: Vanderbilt vs. Florida
When: 12 p.m. Saturday
Where: Ben Hill Griffin Stadium