Georgia was never fully in control of this one until it mattered most. But when it counted, Kirby Smart’s team made the plays they needed on both offense and defense to take their second victory in a row in the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.
“We’ve got kids with character.” Kirby Smart declared postgame when asked what made the difference in this iteration of perhaps the Dawgs’ most bitter rivalry. It sounded less like a swat at the character of Dan Mullen’s Gators and more a statement of admiration for his own charges.
Two weeks ago against LSU I struggled mightily to find a handful of efforts among the Red and Black worthy of singling out. There’s no such deficit tonight. JJ Holloman, Terry Godwin, Isaac Nauta, and Riley Ridley all had clutch catches. Nauta turned in the game of his career in one drive in the second quarter, snagging four straight Jake Fromm throws for 66 yards, and almost single-handedly putting the Bulldogs in field goal range. Nauta led all UGA receivers with five catches for 73 yards on the day and looks more like a fixture in the offense.
For his part Jake Fromm looked like Jake Fromm again, completing 17 of 24 passes for 240 yards and three touchdowns. Fromm looked calm and comfortable for most of the game, amd especially so when he needed most to be. Justin Fields on the other hand didn’t play a single snap for the first time all season. Whether the one had anything to do with the other is a question I’m not qualified to answer, but I can’t help but note the correlation.
Georgia also pounded out 189 yards on the ground, with D’Andre Swift confirming that he’s back from his series of nagging injuries with 104 yards on 12 carries to lead all ‘Dawgs. Elijah Holyfield contributed 71 yards on 20 tough carries, getting the start at tailback. James Cook got only a single carry, Brian Herrien got none. Are the UGA coaches tightening up their tailback rotation? Possibly. We’ll almost certainly hear from Coach Smart on this issue and the QB rotation in his postgame remarks. But we’ve already heard what he thought of his team’s effort.
Defensively the Classic City Canines gave up 285 yards of total offense, but only 110 of them were through the air. When it became apparent that the Saurians would need Feleipe Franks to throw them at least halfway to victory it became simultaneously clear that the Gators were going home with a loss. Franks finished the night 13 of 21 for 105 yards, hitting only two or three really SEC-class throws.
On the last two Gator drives, with the game on the line, Franks was 0 for 3 passing on one then took a crippling sack from Julian Rochester on the other before an incomplete pass to turn it over on downs. The fact that the Julian Rochesters and Jake Camardas made critical plays in this game (that punt that went right to a waiting Mecole Hardman at the Gator 1 was kinetic art) was the most exciting part of the whole shindig.
“We got better today” Smart announced matter-of-factly, with a tone familiar to football coaches everywhere. It’s the sound of a coach who’s seen his guys dig deep when they needed to. Maybe they didn’t play their cleanest game of the season (they didn’t). Maybe they let some opportunities slip by (they did). And perhaps the coaches have some fine-tuning to do (boy howdy, I hope they start on the plane home from Jacksonville).
But the Georgia Bulldogs tonight seized control of the SEC East race and served notice that the young ‘Dawgs have in them what we thought they did all along. They beat a top 10 opponent in a raucous environment with their season very much on the line. You can quibble with how they got there. I sure did. But in the end we learned a lot about this team’s makeup, and they probably learned a little about themselves as well.
It’s never a bad thing to beat the Florida Gators. And it’s always great to be a Georgia Bulldog. But the nights when you can celebrate both are among the best a ‘Dawg fan ever enjoys. I’ll be along with a general evening thread shortly, but don’t let that stop you from rejoicing right now. We own bragging rights over the Florida Gators for another year. And that is indeed a great thing. Until later . . .