Florida football: Heartbreak as Gators miss chance to turn corner vs. Georgia
Florida won the fourth quarter at the Cocktail Party on Saturday in Jacksonville.
Georgia won everything in between, especially third down.
It was fitting, then, that the Bulldogs sealed the game on third and long.
On the play, Florida got what it rarely got all game: Good pressure.
But Bulldogs quarterback Jake Fromm stood tall and, slightly off balance, tossed a ball towards tight end Eli Wolf, who had found separation from Florida safety Brad Stewart. Wolf leaped and came down with yet another Fromm third-down throw, clinching the game for Georgia and sending what had become a nervous Bulldogs crowd into rapture. The conversion, incredibly Georgia’s 12th in 17 opportunities, sealed a 24-17 victory and likely a third consecutive SEC East title for Georgia.
As Fromm and Georgia celebrated, David Reese, Florida’s outstanding senior linebacker, crumpled to the ground, hands on helmet.
“It was a missed opportunity for us, a chance to beat a great team and control the East,” Reese said following the game.
Reese, of course, is correct.
It was a golden opportunity on a Florida sideline littered with NFL-bound talent at the playmaker positions, defensive end and cornerback. The kind of opportunity that might not present itself again all that soon.
The Gators did some of the things you need to do to beat Georgia, a team with a talent edge and, it should be said, a SEC championship pedigree. The Gators stymied the Georgia running game, limiting the Bulldogs to a season-low 3.1 yards per carry. The Gators contained, as well as anybody can, Georgia’s All-American running back D’Andre Swift, who had 86 yards rushing on 25 bruising carries. Florida played turnover-free football, and committed fewer penalties.
But Florida, with a healthy dose of help from a Georgia team that played its best game of the season, didn’t do enough to win in other areas.
For the third consecutive season, the Gators started slowly in Jacksonville, falling behind by multiple scores. Florida squandered two timeouts on its opening drive, out of sorts and out of sync, and then made the mystifying decision to throw out of an empty formation on 4th and inches. Georgia held, then scored on a 16-play, 47-yard, drive that was tone setting less because of a Rodrigo Blankenship field goal and more because Georgia converted 4 of 5 third downs on the drive, including 10-plus yards twice.
By the end of the first half, Georgia led 13-3 and had converted on 3rd down 8 of 11 times, often in 3rd and long. If you stop the run but can’t defend the pass, it is going to be hard to win.
Florida’s offense did little to help, at least in the first three quarters.
The Gators couldn’t run the ball, but also didn’t seem willing to try, attempting only 15 traditional running plays. Without balance, Florida struggled mightily on short and medium distance 3rd downs, which meant Georgia’s defense got off the field when Florida’s couldn’t.
Even when Florida moved the football through the air (Kyle Pitts was his usual uncoverable self in the first half) the Gators made uncharacteristic errors. Kyle Trask took two tough coverage sacks, both on plays where he had plenty of time to get rid of the ball.
“The only people we can be disappointed in is ourselves,” Trask said.
He’s right. Unless you have Tua Tagovailoa or Jalen Hurts, playing from behind is not the formula against Kirby Smart’s Georgia teams. You have to build a lead and force Georgia out of its comfort zone. Florida failed to do that Saturday.
Instead, when Blankenship’s field goal extended the Bulldogs’ lead to 16-3 in the third quarter, the outcome mostly felt inevitable. The Bulldogs were content to run the ball and shorten the game offensively and play soft zone and keep things in front of them defensively, forcing Florida into extended drives.
The Gators rallied, of course. Quitting isn’t in this program’s DNA the way it was under Jim McElwain or Will Muschamp and that’s a testament to the culture change that’s happened since Mullen took charge. Still, Florida putting together fourth-quarter comeback wins against Kentucky and South Carolina is one thing. Pulling that off against Georgia is quite another.
Florida put together two scoring drives in the fourth quarter, but needed to be perfect to finish the comeback, and wasn’t.
Again, some of it had to do with the other team.
Fromm, generational Gator-killer, was magnificent, connecting on 20 of 30 passes for 279 yards and two touchdowns. Lawrence Cager, playing in pain, silenced doubters about his high-end talent with a 7-reception, 132-yard performance that will go down in Georgia lore.
But the Gators made simple errors, like Shawn Davis biting on an in route and not following Cager on what ultimately was the winning 52-yard touchdown pass. Or Brad Stewart taking too shallow an angle to the ball on the final third-down conversion. These types of mistakes are difficult to overcome when you chase championships, especially when playing with less talent, which the Gators were Saturday.
The talent gap was on display Saturday.
Recruiting stars matter, and Georgia’s offensive line, which features 5-star players, did an exceptional job slowing a Florida pass rush that had been dominant early in the season when healthy. The Georgia defense, which quietly entered the game ranked first in the SEC in almost every statistical category, bent but didn’t break. That was largely due to its stifling run defense, still the only one in the Power 5 to not surrender a rushing touchdown this season.
For all the stars at quarterback and elite playmakers that pass through the SEC, it’s still a line-of-scrimmage league. Georgia has better talent on the line of scrimmage and that disparity helped win the day Saturday.
Much has been said about Mullen’s ability to call plays and scheme around talent differentials.
“Dan Mullen might be the best coach in college football that does a better job of concealing his team’s weaknesses, whether at Mississippi State or now at Florida, where he has excellent talent but not yet enough of it,” ESPN’s Tom Luginbill said last week.
That could be true, but it’s hard to scheme around losing the line of scrimmage comprehensively. If Florida wants to win Cocktail Parties — and SEC East titles — in the age of Kirby Smart at Georgia, they’d better close the talent gap in recruiting.
Improving recruiting means Mullen must be self-referential and ask hard questions. Does the staff work hard enough on the recruiting trail? Does the staff lack a high-end recruiter or two who can win the battles, especially for offensive and defensive line talent, that build championship teams? Mullen will find and develop a quarterback; this we can trust.
Everything else about the operation needs to be fair game for evaluation.
The sunshine pumpers might say it is Year 2 under Mullen and Florida could very well win 10 games for the second consecutive season. That’s true and that’s good. Ten-win seasons are fun and certainly not something to take for granted. But there’s a fine line between hiring a Lloyd Carr type, a good coach who won a lot of games but not many championships, and hiring a coach who will consistently compete for national championships. Those that want more from Florida need to ask these questions.
Of course, talent and an improved recruiting operation is only part of the winning equation.
At times Saturday, the pressure and scale of the moment seemed to weigh on Mullen and the Gators.
Mullen blew up on wide receivers coach Billy Gonzales after a personnel error, a rare sideline meltdown from a coach who is usually a cool cucumber. Mullen also altered his plan to run the ball more when Florida fell behind, understandable in a vacuum but also maybe a sign the moment and scale of the game got to him a bit.
It certainly doesn’t bother Smart, who for all the chirping the past month is now 3-1 in the Cocktail Party as Georgia’s head coach. Smart is set to join Steve Spurrier, another guy who won a lot of Cocktail Parties, as the only head coach to win the SEC East three consecutive seasons.
Smart, a Georgia alumnus from the darkest years of this rivalry for Georgia, understands this football game. He gets the size and scale of it and his teams always seem to play their best football in Jacksonville. That is purposeful.
“You have to win the Florida game if you want to win the East,” Smart said before his first Cocktail Party in charge. Smart lost that game but, with elite talent and good coaching, he hasn’t lost one since.
Dan Mullen likes to talk about restoring the “Gator Standard.” Undoubtedly, that includes winning championships, and to win championships, UF must beat Georgia.
Mullen and Florida missed a golden chance to do that Saturday. They now have to reckon with why.