Confident of victory coming in, the Bulldog faithful showed up in Jacksonville in full force. This year’s Georgia/Florida game had the feel of one of the great ’80’s rivalries where just about anything could happen. But again this year, the favored team struggled and Florida put a new shine on their season with a 20-13 win.
If nothing else, the win takes the heat off Ron Zook, for now, as Gator fans went home happy with the win, and with the effort. “Oh boy don’t you have that right,” Zook told me after the game when I asked if it wasn’t especially gratifying to win a game in such scrappy fashion. The players agreed. “We didn’t have our best stuff, but we kept fighting and pushing and things worked out in the end,” Max Starks said in his post game comments.
Each Florida player was wearing a sticker on their warm-up suit that just said “Hammer.” Starks said it was started by an assistant coach who asked who was willing to bring their lunch pail to work each day and take a “blue-collar” mental approach to practice and games. “We all signed this sledge hammer,” Starks continued, “and promised to do what we could to get better every day. It worked.”
Shannon Snell predicted early in the week that the Gators would beat Georgia, and said the Dogs would lose another SEC game as well. “I stand by my prediction,” Snell said in the hallway after the game. “We did our part, now somebody else has to do theirs.” Of course, another loss by Georgia gives Florida the inside track in the SEC East, providing they win their final two conference games against Vanderbilt and South Carolina.
Neither team was particulary impressive, but Florida’s defense was the difference. Twice, Georgia had the ball on turnovers inside the Gators’ twenty yard line, and came away with only three points. “That just goes to show you how every play can make a difference,” Georgia Offensive Lineman John Stinchcomb sighed when answering post-game questions. The Bulldogs had a 2nd and goal from the 1 but an illegal procedure penalty pushed them back to the 6 and they had to settle for a field goal. “This one will hurt,” Stinchcomb continued, “but starting Monday, we have to look at the rest of the season.”
The Gators’ defense was physical, fast and swarming, not allowing the Georgia offense to hit a big play. Terrence Edwards had a chance at a big play in the ‘Dogs final drive, but dropped a wide open post pattern that could have gone for six. “We ran that play earlier in the game, and it was open, but Greene couldn’t get the ball to him, ” Mark Richt explained. “In that series, we ran it against a safety who hadn’t seen it before and it was open. If he catches it, he very well could have scored but I don’t want to say one play made the difference in the game.”
Richt is right. Georgia had plenty of opportunities but couldn’t find a rhythm, never converting a third down opportunity for the entire game. “That’s the money down,” Gator Defensive Back Guss Scott explained, “and we really got it done on third down tonight.” This win should buoy Florida and propel them to easy wins over Vandy and the Gamecocks. (FSU is a whole different animal, especially in Tallahassee.) The question is, what does it do to Georgia? It could easily devastate them, losing to their hated rival with their first significant SEC title in 20 years just out of reach.
The game seemed to come off without a hitch, thanks to the city of Jacksonville’s efforts. Downtown was packed, and a bit crazy, but seemed to be without major incident. “There are always going to be problems with a night game, ” Florida Athletic Director Jeremy Foley told me at halftime. “But there are problems with night games in Gainesville and Athens as well. The good thing here is most of these people are staying here tonight instead of having to drive four hours home.”
The stadium looked great, security was efficient without being overbearing and tailgating was just what it should be: big, loud and fun. Even though it wasn’t a particularly well played game, it was entertaining, both on and off the field. In other words, it was just what a great college football game should be.