Florida Gators Fade Fast In Third Consecutive Defeat To Bulldogs

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In a manner that mostly followed the preconceived script, the Gators made their debuts on Saturday before more than 76,000 spectators at EverBank Stadium and a national TV audience on CBS.

The Florida-Georgia game this year would be more competitive than the previous two, taking place here on the banks of the St. Johns River. This time, with Georgia rated No. 1 in the AP Top 25, the Gators would be able to look back on a far stronger performance—some experts even predicted an upset victory—after they took the field against the Bulldogs for the third straight season.

What a waste of hopeful pundits and memorable first impressions.

In their legendary Southeastern Conference rivalry, the top-ranked Bulldogs kept up their pressure on the Gators, hammering Florida with 36 straight points en route to a 43-20 triumph and their third straight series win.

Coach Billy Napier of Florida commented, “We made too many mistakes,” following the team’s 0-2 loss to Georgia. “We anticipated a narrow margin of error. In all three areas of our team, we are more capable as coaches. After the game, if you look the players in the eye, I believe they know they can play better.

“And ultimately, Georgia’s got a good football team. They’ve got good personnel. They’ve got a good coaching staff. They’ve got veteran players that have been in their system, and they played well.”

For the first drive, at least, the Gators looked good too. Through seven plays, they marched 66 yards. Graham Mertz, the quarterback, connected with rookie receiver Eugene Wilson III for a 27-yard gain to start the possession. Wilson was then hit by Mertz for a 25-yard touchdown. For the first time since Kirby Smart took over the Bulldogs in 2016, Florida took the lead over Georgia thanks to a drive in which Wilson caught four catches for 62 yards.

There has been a rare excitement on the Orange and blue side of the stadium in recent years.

“We were clicking,” Mertz said. “Anytime you’re in a game, you’ve got to be prepared to give a punch and receive a punch, I think, especially in this sport. It’s a fistfight, and it’s for four quarters. We’ve got to be better prepared for that punch and punch back and be able to respond quickly.”

After moving 71 yards in 11 plays, the Bulldogs answered with a 22-yard field goal from Peyton Woodring on their opening drive. On Florida’s next play, Georgia forced a punt, and five plays later, quarterback Carson Beck found receiver Ladd McConkey in the center of the field with a pass. McConkey made a U-turn and beat the Gators in speed to score from 41 yards. With 1:23 left in the first quarter, the Bulldogs led 10-7 after trailing 0–7 at the start.

And with some assistance from the Gators, they were just getting started.

In an attempt to gain some momentum, Napier elected to go for it on fourth-and-1 from Florida’s 34-yard line on the following drive.

But Bulldogs linebacker Smael Mondon blew up a trick play that had the snap go between Mertz’s legs to tailback Trevor Etienne, who was about to toss the ball, for a 3-yard loss. The Gators led 31 to Georgia’s victory.

Running back Daijun Edwards scored a 20-yard touchdown after three plays. Tyrion Ingram-Dawkins strip-sacks Mertz on the next possession and Marvin Jones Jr. recovers at UF’s 11-yard line. Four plays later, Edwards scored on a 2-yard run, and the game was over. After Jeremy Crawshaw’s punt was stopped by Joenel Aguero, the Bulldogs gained ground and led 26-7 at the half.

Against Florida, Smart climbed to 6-2 and stated his squad didn’t panic when the Gators scored early.

“Not a lot of panic in that group,” Smart said. “We certainly need to rectify starting the game better, but the comfortable part is nobody panics. Give them credit. They threw the ball to a really good playmaker. They did a great job utilizing his skill-set. And we didn’t do a great job stopping him. But it wasn’t like there was a panic mode.”

When Mertz found the end zone once more early in the fourth quarter, this time with tight end Hayden Hansen for a 5-yard touchdown pass, the Gators were behind 36-7. With 1:20 remaining in the game, Mertz’s 1-yard run completed the scoring as the Bulldogs rallied for a 43–13 lead.

For the first time in the rivalry’s history, the Bulldogs scored 40 points or more in back-to-back games against the Gators on Saturday. They had defeated the Gators by 27, 22, and 23 points in their previous three meetings.

Georgia defeated Florida, a team that came into the game rated fourth nationally in time of possession (34:01), by outgaining the Gators 486 yards to 339, converting 6 of 12 third downs, and controlling the time of possession (33 minutes, 29 seconds to 26:31). On each of the six times the Bulldogs entered the red zone, they scored.

All-American tight end Brock Bowers is absent due to ankle surgery, but McConkey caught six catches for 135 yards and a touchdown, Edwards ran for 95 yards and two scores, and Beck completed 19 of 28 for 315 yards and two scores.

“It was just a lot of mistakes, offense and defense-wise, game changing-wise, and basically, we had to fix those,” UF junior cornerback Jason Marshall Jr. said. “The mistakes kind of held us back.”

The defeat brought attention to the disparity between the Bulldogs, who have won national championships twice, and the Gators, who were the dominant team in this rivalry not too long ago.

Napier, in his second season, had the Gators poised to take the lead in the SEC East after a thrilling victory two weeks ago at South Carolina, if they could pull off an upset on Saturday.

Instead, despite the Gators’ encouraging start on Saturday, the tale in this intense rivalry stays the same.

“We’ve got work to do to chase them down,” Napier said. “There’s no denying that. And we’re in the middle of that process, in the middle of that journey. It causes you to respect all parts of building a football team, ultimately.

“I think there’s a number of things that can be done better from just game-day, situational football. They do it all well. And today, we gave them a little bit too much.”