Jacksonville — At halftime Mark Richt invoked the fresh memory of the St. Louis Cardinals. “Guys that don’t quit have a chance,” he told his Georgia Bulldogs.
Much later, Richt would tell the assembled media: “We didn’t quit.”
Folks can and will argue over the worth of one victory over a Florida team that hasn’t won since September, but no one can question the weight that had fallen on the Bulldogs regarding their strange inability to win this one game. “There was some history and some demons,” Richt said, and the way this game began it was as if those demons would beat Georgia by themselves.
Florida’s first play from scrimmage netted 72 yards. Its first touchdown came on a fourth-and-19 pass 7 1/2 minutes into the game. (Who goes for it on fourth-and-19 so early in any game?) Its second touchdown came on a 99-yard kickoff return by its second-best returner. Everything that had gone wrong for Georgia in this series the past two decades was going wrong all at once, but that, in a weird way, might have been for the best.
Said cornerback Brandon Boykin: “You could say a lot of bad things happened. We had to calm down. But this team is special. After we lost to Boise, I told people, ‘Don’t worry about this team.’ We’ve bounced back.”
Said offensive coordinator Mike Bobo of his team’s 17-3 deficit: “Nobody said, ‘Hey, here we go again.’ ”
Surely a few Bulldogs thought it, but they put aside any nattering negativity to focus on the task at hand. Said Todd Grantham, the defensive coordinator: “That game was a test of our mental toughness. We kept going. We kept playing the next play.”
One play changed this game and maybe the course of Georgia’s season. The same Richt who’d ordered a field goal on fourth-and-goal against Central Florida in the Liberty Bowl last December rediscovered the nerve that had marked him as a young head coach. Ninety seconds before halftime, his team down 14 points, Richt had Aaron Murray throw into the end zone on fourth-and-five. Michael Bennett hauled it down, and from there Georgia believed.
Said Alec Ogletree, the superb linebacker: “Once the offense scored right before halftime, we fed off that.”
The Gators’ offense, overseen by the famous Charlie Weis, would manage 32 yards and one first down in the second half against Grantham’s defenders. With quarterback John Brantley unable to work under center due to an ankle injury, Florida went almost exclusively to the empty backfield, and Grantham, cogitating on the fly, trumped Weis at every turn.
Grantham: “It’s a credit to our players … From halftime on, we were playing a new game plan.”
Midway through the third quarter, Richt did it again. His team down seven points, Richt chose to have Murray throw again — to different receiver down a different sideline — on fourth-and-six, and Tarvarres King outfought Jaylen Watkins for the ball. At last, the game was tied. It would come untied due to a field goal generated by another long kickoff return, but by then Georgia had made its point: This day would not be like other days against the hated Gators.
Richt: “I just thought the best thing to do was to go for it on fourth down. I just felt like we needed a touchdown. I didn’t think threes were going to get it.”
The fourth quarter was all Bulldogs, and they celebrated in a way that far outstripped a four-point victory over a 4-4 opponent. What did this game mean? Said King: “Everything. We’re back.”
Again, that might be overstating. But when a team has failed so often in this venue, any break in the pattern is major news. “Now that it’s over,” Richt said, “I can say, ‘Yeah, it was a big deal.’ It was a big deal for me personally.”
For two years we’ve parsed Georgia results and asked, “What does this mean for Richt’s job status?” After Saturday, we can say this much for sure: Richt’s Bulldogs started 0-2 but have won six in a row; they’ve beaten Florida, which hadn’t happened since 2007, and they’ve kept themselves in position to take the SEC East if South Carolina slips. At this moment, it’s almost impossible to imagine Georgia parting ways with this coach anytime soon.
No, this isn’t the most polished bunch you’ll see. (Richt described his special team as “mostly average to scary.”) But Georgia spotted Florida 14 points and held its nerve in a way the Gators — 14 penalties for 106 yards — could not. In a game where the Bulldogs invariably invent ways to lose, they found a way to win. They might not be the smoothest-running bunch, but these ‘Dogs will hunt — and fight.
By Mark Bradley