JACKSONVILLE, Fla.— All the talk coming into Saturday’s annual Georgia-Florida bash — a matchup of Top 10-ranked teams — concerned Florida’s potent passing attack featuring Gator quarterback Kyle Trask and his talented receiver corps.
At the same time, the Bulldog offense had been highly criticized the past two weeks after supposedly unimaginative play-calling in an upset loss to South Carolina and a 21-0 win over Kentucky, when Georgia couldn’t score in the first half in a virtual monsoon.
But in the pro stadium of the Jacksonville Jaguars, it was Bulldog senior quarterback Jake Fromm and the offense of first-year coordinator James Coley that stole the spotlight from Dan Mullen’s 6th-ranked Gators. With the Georgia junior field general drilling 20 of 30 passes for 279 yards and two touchdowns and the Bulldogs mixing the run for another 119 yards, the Bulldogs presented head coach Kirby Smart with his third consecutive win over Florida, to the tune of 24-17.
Ranked as the nation’s No. 8 team entering this game and sure to move up in this coming week’s poll, Georgia climbed to 7-1 and 4-1 in the SEC East, at the same time maybe gaining the inside track to a return to the SEC Championship Game. Although, as Smart reminded in his post-game comments, the Bulldogs still have some tough obstacles ahead … starting with the Missouri Tigers this coming Saturday in Athens.
“That was a hard-earned win against a good football team,” said Smart. “Credit goes to these kids who played hard and played with grit. So many people doubted and they never did. I am just happy for these guys in that locker room.
“I am proud of Jake Fromm, those receivers and our entire offense,” Smart said. “Those guys at receiver have a chip on their shoulder and did a good job today. There are things we need to do to get better, but it was good to see them play well today.”
Smart was especially happy with the way the Georgia offense converted on third downs as the Bulldogs were successful on 12-of-18 attempts.
“We played really well on third down on both sides of the ball,” he said. “When I was on the set of SEC Nation this morning, I told them that would be a key today. We executed well on both sides and that really was a difference-maker today. Coach Coley did a great job and he called all the plays tonight.”
And while Fromm was surely a cool customer under fire from a tenacious Florida defense, he had plenty of help in a game where the Bulldogs dominated the time of possession, having the ball 35.48 minutes to the Gators’ 24.12 minutes. There was grad transfer Lawrence Cager, junior tailback D’Andre Swift and, certainly a Georgia defense that limited Florida’s offense without a touchdown for three quarters and shut the Gator offense down to the tune of 21 yards net rushing. And so, for the 14th straight year in this game, the team that had the most yards rushing was the winning team.
Cager, returning to the lineup following a shoulder injury, proved unstoppable against the Florida defense, snaring a career-high seven catches for 132 yards including a 52-yard touchdown reception that came with 10:01 remaining in the game after the Gators had pulled within 16-10 of the Bulldogs. Cager then pulled in a 2-point PAT pass from Fromm to lift Georgia up 24-10 and forced the Florida offense into a hurry-up mode in the remaining minutes.
“I wasn’t going to miss this game for anything,” said the 6-5, 220-pound Cager, who came to Georgia from the University of Miami. “I wasn’t going to miss this game. I used to watch this game every year as a football fan. This is a great game, everybody knows that. Big rivalry, so I wasn’t going to miss it,” he repeated.
On his 4th-quarter 52-yard touchdown catch, Cager said: “It was a great play call by Coach Coley. We had practiced it all week—new play—thought we could get it in there on man coverage. We knew that they played a lot of 42, so we got the look.”
“Today was an opportunity to go ahead and play,” said Fromm, notching his third consecutive win over Florida. “Guys took that and were ready to roll with it. We responded and came out and played a great football game. It feels great. I’m extremely thankful, blessed to be here with my teammates in the locker room and this coaching staff.”
The Gators did get on the board again with 3:11 left to play on a 2-yard pass from Trask to Freddie Swain. But Florida wouldn’t get the ball back again, the Bulldogs hacking out first downs to kill the clock with a big 22-yard Fromm-to-Eli Wolf connection on 3rd-and-7 putting the final nail in the Gator coffin as the final seconds ticked off.
Senior tailback Brian Herrien pulled in four passes for 46 yards including a sensational, diving, one-handed 18-yard catch on Georgia’s field goal march at the start of the third quarter.
“He has unreal ball skills,” Smart said of Herrien. “I was standing right there and thought there was no way, but he made a great catch and that was a huge play in the game.”
And Swift complemented Georgia’s aerial attack by running for 86 net yards on a career-high 25 carries. Bottled up in the early going while attempting to run inside the tackles, Swift ripped off a 30-yard run in the second quarter and continued to inflict damage on the Gators in the second half as Coley began springing Swift out on the edge. And, too, Swift had a 37-yard touchdown run in the third period erased due to a holding call on wide receiver Matt Landers. He also had a 24 pass reception.
The Bulldogs’ offensive line, highly touted as maybe the nation’s best entering the 2019 season, came together to provide excellent protection for Fromm, not allowing the Gator defense to record a single sack in the game.
“The credit goes to Sam Pittman (O-line coach) and Jake Fromm,” Smart said. “Sam put in some really good pass protections, and we challenged those guys that they would be put on an island. They did a fantastic job.”
“Man, they balled out—all five did,” said Fromm of his O-line protectors. “I can only remember one scenario where we ran the same play twice and it kind of got loose. Besides that, those guys played great, played physical. We knew it was going to be a really physical football game, there was going to be a lot of body blows for those guys on the line of scrimmage.”
And, as mentioned, the Bulldog defense — which leads the SEC in total defense, scoring defense and rushing defense — was superb. Trask did throw for 257 yards and the two fourth-quarter touchdowns but he and the Florida receivers were the Gators’ only offense with Georgia making them one-dimensional by slamming the door on the UF running game.
Junior linebacker Monty Rice led the way with nine total tackles including a half tackle-for-loss. Then came junior STAR Mark Webb and junior safety Richard LeCounte with six stops each. Cornerback Eric Stokes and redshirt freshman linebacker Azeez Ojulari checked in with four tackles apiece with Ojulari sacking Trask once and also showing a half tackle-for-loss. Defensive end Malik Herring and big sophomore nose tackle Jordan Davis each recorded half sacks.
“We played very well up until late in the game,” said Rice. “They had a very long drive — it was probably about 15, 16 plays. We had some fourth downs that we didn’t stop them on. Next time we get an opportunity like that, we’re going to put the fire out. We don’t have to put it on Jake Fromm to execute that third down to Eli Wolf to end the game.”
The Bulldogs moved into their 13-3 halftime lead on Rodrigo Blankenship’s 31-yard field goal, a 3-yard touchdown pass from Fromm to freshman Dominick Blaylock that capped a 10-play 59-yard drive that took six minutes and 19 seconds off the clock, and then a 37-yard field goal by Blankenship. The Bulldogs’ lead at intermission could have been 17-3 had not Fromm barely overthrown a wide-open Cager in the end zone.
But Georgia came back with the second-half kickoff to drive to Blankenship’s third field goal of the day, this time from 27 yards out. The Gators did get their first touchdown at the outset of the final quarter on a 23-yard strike from Trask to Van Jefferson. That pulled Florida within 16-10 but then came the 52-yard touchdown bomb to Cager, who was all to his lonesome on the left sideline … speeding to the end zone untouched after his catch. The two-point strike featuring the same Fromm-Cager combo put the Bulldogs ahead by the 24-10 tally with 10:01 remaining, and the Gators killed nearly seven minutes off the clock before they could get their final score with just 3:11 remaining when Trask flipped the quick 2-yard pass to Swain in the right corner of the end zone.
“I thought we should have stopped them on 4th-and-2,” said Smart concerning the Gators’ late touchdown drive. “We did not get the stop, but our guys played well and did what they had to do.
“This win certainly helps confidence-wise, but this team never lacked on that,” he said. “We turned all the noise on mute and focused on the task at hand. But look,” said Smart, “we still haven’t arrived. We’ve still got a long ways to go and we’ve got some tough teams ahead of us.”
Missouri, following an open date this past weekend, will come to Dooley Field at Sanford Stadium with a 5-3 season mark, showing a 2-2 mark in the SEC after consecutive losses to Vanderbilt and Kentucky.