ATHENS – It was the Tuesday of Florida week, and Mark Richt took the expected route for a coach who has been on the losing end of too many of these things. Downplay the history. Downplay the emotions. Downplay any suggestions that the other team is in Georgia’s heads.
Like that first play of the game last year when Aaron Murray threw an interception to Janoris Jenkins? It wasn’t about Murray being overcome by the moment, Richt said. “I think it has a lot more to do with the fact [Florida] just played well. A guy breaks on the ball and he makes a play. I don’t think it had anything to do with emotion. It’s more of an execution issue, really.”
Here’s the problem with execution issues: An athlete’s body parts can do only what the head tells them to, and sometimes there are all of these things that get in the way. Nerves. Atmosphere. Confidence. The general dread of, “We’ve been here before.”
This was Murray’s answer to the same question Richt was asked: “There were definitely a lot of nerves, a lot of jitters, and I definitely didn’t start out the way I wanted to.”
Georgia plays Florida again Saturday. A case could be made that this is the most important game in the series during the Richt era. There are potential ramifications for both this season (SEC East race) and the big picture. Theoretically, the Bulldogs could lose to Florida and still win the East. (Richt: “This wouldn’t bury us, the way things are happening in this league. It wouldn’t count us out, [but winning] it wouldn’t count us in.”)
But a loss would drop Richt to 2-9 against Florida. That would be a difficult thing to sell to the administration after this season, especially since the Gators carry a three-game losing streak into this game for the second consecutive year (and won last season 34-31).
Richt must win this game. The Florida game is simply that important to the season and to the program. Florida matters more. It follows that it has caused the most misery.
The numbers are dizzying: three consecutive losses, 11 of 13, 18 of 21.
Vince Dooley went 17-7-1. His 25-game winning percentage: .700. Since then, Ray Goff (1-6), Donnan (1-4) and Richt (2-8) have gone 4-18. Their 22-game percentage: .182.
How can players and coaches not think of that history, even if they weren’t here for most of it?
Some players weren’t even born yet. Murray? He actually was born Nov. 10, 1990 — the day Steve Spurrier’s Gators tortured Goff’s Dogs, 38-7. That’s when this 21-game stretch started. So it’s all Murray’s fault.
When one signature program loses 18 of 21 games to another, it’s not just about talent. At some point, it’s between the ears.
Georgia’s starting quarterbacks in the past three meetings have thrown nine interceptions. Florida’s, one. The Dogs have committed 12 turnovers. Florida, one.
That not about athleticism. That’s one team being calm and the other having a meltdown.
Richt has tried different ways to prepare his players. Twice, he brought in former players and coaches who had previous success against the Gators to speak to the team during the bye week.
“One year we won, one year we lost,” he said. “I think we might be better off just focusing the things that truly matter: What’s your job? What’s your assignment? What are you going to do if this happens? When we get there, I don’t think we’ll have any problem with emotions.”
Easier said than done. Defensive back Sanders Commings said, “It’s hard not to get caught up” in the hype and surroundings. Early in last year’s game, Florida’s Trey Burton fumbled at Gators’ 14-yard-line. Commings had a chance to fall on the ball. Instead, he tried to pick it up and run for a touchdown. But he failed, and the Gators kept possession, eventually driving 91 yards for their first touchdown.
“It was early, but it could’ve changed the game,” Commings said. “Next time I’ll just fall on the ball.”
That’s the way it has gone for most of the past 21 years. Richt made history in Athens, winning two SEC titles early in his tenure. But this is one part of history he hasn’t been able to change. And as much as he wants to try to play this off as being just another game, it isn’t.
By Jeff Schultz