JACKSONVILLE, FL.—The wind was whipping off the St. John's River as a trickle of fans began to filter into the sparse parking lots outside TIAA Bank Field. Tailgates dotted what appeared more to be the World’s Largest Empty Outdoor Cocktail Party Venue.
Even with the small crowd and restrictive COVID-19 policies that made this unlike any other Florida-Georgia game in recent memory (the smallest crowd since 1938 when the stadium held 17,000 people) the anticipation was still heavy, the nervousness was still felt in every fan who quietly walked towards the gate.
After the No. 8 Florida Gators won the toss and deferred, the No. 4 Georgia Bulldogs used their first play to motion four men to the left and hand the ball off to Zamir White who went that direction behind a wall of blockers.
The tone seemed to be set for the day the moment White hit the edge. For 14 years, whoever has controlled the run game has won this matchup. Georgia made it clear early they would be the team to do so on Saturday. And they did. Technically, the Bulldogs out rushed the Gators 165-97 yards. It wouldn’t matter, but more on that in a bit.
Back to the first play. White hit the edge and went 75-yards, untouched to the endzone. The vaulted Gators offense went three yards on a three-and-out and a bad punt gave Georgia the ball back at the UGA 46-yard line.
In six plays, Georgia made quick work of the short field and Stetson Bennett (5-16, 78 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception) found Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint over the middle for the 32-yard touchdown. Brad Stewart, attempting to make a touchdown saving tackle, dove for Rosemy-Jacksaint’s ankles as defenders are now taught to do in order to avoid head injuries. The cart came out before the redshirt freshman could even roll over. Everyone in attendance could see he’d suffered a gruesome injury. Don’t watch the replay.
The score put Georgia up 14-0 and could easily have put Florida into panic mode. Instead, it did the opposite.
"On the sideline we just kept our heads up and kept playing,” says corner Kaiir Elam
"The first two touchdowns were off of just busted plays, and we're the type of team that shouldn't be giving up any plays. So it was just added motivation to keep going. I'm just happy nobody put their heads down. Everybody was motivated to get back out there and just play the game of football. I'm just proud to see that.”
Adds Head Coach Dan Mullen, “Our guys were kind of maybe a little shell-shocked coming out at that point with what was going on. We did a nice job settling down. Nobody panicked. Everyone was kind of like, ‘Whoa.’”
As the offense retook the field, now in a 14-0 hole, receiver Justin Shorter went to his quarterback.
“I looked at Kyle [Trask] and was like, 'Hey, we need to score here, like we have to get this back going.’”
On 3rd and 4 from the UGA 14, Trask dropped back in the pocket. As he cocked his arm, a defender hit his elbow. Trask pulled the ball back in to save the fumble, and dumped it over the middle to Shorter who cut on a crossing route.
Shorter turned up field—exactly as the play is practiced he revealed—and gave a peace sign to the camera as he crossed into the endzone.
“We ended up scoring and thank God it ended up being me,” laughs Shorter.
With the score, even still down by a possession, the Florida sideline let out a breath.
“I think we once down and got that first offensive touchdown, I think the attitude on our sideline changed and everybody kind of remembered, ‘Hey, you know what, we can play pretty good defense, getting 11 guys running to the ball as hard as we can. We can score points.’ I think everybody all of a sudden realized we’re fine, we’re going to be OK in this game,” says Mullen.
After an incredible Georgia kickoff return (56-yards) looked to put the Bulldogs in great position to extend their lead, the Gators defense stood up. A stuff on an opening run and a Brad Stewart pass break up but the Bulldogs into a bad position on 3rd and long. Bennett fumbled the bad snap and had to quickly fall on it before Georgia transfer now Florida defensive end Brenton Cox could still it away.
That was, in many ways, the story of the Gators defense on the day. They didn’t beat Stetson Bennett so much as gave him the rope to hang himself. And he took it.
The next Gators offensive drive, a wheel route to Malik Davis moved Florida 20-yards downfield and sat a new tone for the day. As mentioned above, for 14 years the team that had the better running performance won the game. On Saturday, Florida put the ball in the air and into their running back’s hands.
Florida’s three backs came together for 10 catches and 212 receiving yards (Malik Davis, 5-100; Nay’Quan Wright, 3-71; Dameon Pierce, 2-41).
“I know everybody says whoever runs for the most yards wins, but maybe it’s whoever’s running backs get the most yards win,” points out Dan Mullen, before praising Trask for consistently finding and exploiting those matchups. And exploit them he and Offensive Coordinator Brian Johnson did, all game.
“We go to what works,” states receiver Tre Grimes.
“If Coach see's a matchup that he likes, he's going to attack it. And that's what he does with all the players, he puts them in a position. So early in the game we've seen that the wheel routes and all this stuff was working, and we just kept executing it and it was a big role in gaining huge chunk yards plays so that helped us out a lot.”
Adds Trask, “When you're making a gameplan you want to try to find as many mismatches as you and we were having some good success with the running backs on their linebackers we just tried to take advantage of it.”
It was those matchups and mismatches, the ability to exploit them, that led to Florida’s win. For years, this game has been about X’s and O’s versus Jimmy and Joe’s. Georgia had the players, Florida had the gameplan. Could Dan Mullen get better talent and put them in a position to beat the top notch talent coming out of Athens?
On Saturday, it finally happened.
"They played with a lot of eye- candy and motions that obviously we didn’t handle well,” admits Georgia Head Coach Kirby Smart.
“We had calls where we called and then they beat us, right…I can deal with those because we called the pressure and we tried to pressure the quarterback and he made a good throw and catch. I can live with that. What I can’t live with is leaving the guy wide open on a wheel-route. You should be looking at him. That is your job, and somehow you don’t look at him and he is wide open. Those are the breakdowns that we had.”
But Georgia, it should be reminded, came into the day with the best total defense in the SEC (300.6 yards per game). They wouldn’t go silently into the night and Eric Stokes—who already had two interceptions and a Pick-6 in the Dawgs first five games—jumped a Kadarius Toney route on the Gators first drive of the second quarter, and returned the Trask interception for his second touchdown of the season, a 37-yard Pick-6.
Libational carbonated beverages were spewed in the air of the Georgia side…but yet again, the Gators didn’t panic. Another wheel route to Nay’Quan Wright picked up 50 yards. The next play, Trask connected with his favorite target, tight end Kyle Pitts. The future first round pick was being held enough to draw flags but still managed to outman his defender to make the contested catch look easy for the touchdown. The score was tied again at 21-all.
After forcing another Georgia punt, thanks in large part to great pressure in the backfield, Florida took back over and got the drive started with—what else—a 37-yard Malik Davis wheel route.
Then the rain began. It came down in sheets, coating the windows of the press box. Kyle Pitts was in the middle of the field, coming down with the pass when Georgia safety Lewis Cine met him mid-air. It took a couple of minutes for either to get up. Cine had to be guided towards the injury tent then the locker room, looking like a man who didn’t even know his own name, much less that he was ejected the rest of the game. Pitts just kept his head buried in the ground until a trainer took his helmet and led him to the locker room. He was out the rest of the game in concussion protocol.
“We’ll see,” Mullen says of Pitts status.
“We’ll see. That was a big hit, so the trainers said that he would be out the rest of the game. We will check out as that goes the rest of the week.”
But still, Florida didn’t panic.
On the sideline, redshirt junior Kemore Gamble got ready.
“When Kyle went down I said a quick prayer for him, and [tight end coach] Coach Brewster told me it’s my time to shine, and I had to do it for Kyle and step up.”
The Georgia defense clearly wasn’t planning on the offense depending on a tight end who had nine total receptions and no touchdowns in his three year Gators career thus far. As Gamble trotted out to the top of the formation, someone in the Bulldogs secondary saw the big bodied tight end was uncovered and began trying to move defenders over.
It was too late.
“When I seen Tre Grimes ran the post route, and I seen the corner route I’m like ‘Ooh OK, free ticket to the touchdown?’, and I took advantage of it,” Gamble told reporters.
The 24-yard touchdown (psst, another wheel route) gave Florida their first lead of the game. They wouldn’t look back.
Two 50 yard field goals from Evan McPhearson bookended the half and a Trask to Tre Grimes touchdown that the receiver high pointed and will most assuredly be on the Trask Heisman hype tape.
So much of the credit for the catch needs to go to the physical Grimes, who blessedly was given an uncontested catch by his quarterback for once and used his size to his advantage.
“Our coach told me, we wanted to take a shot, but at the same time we didn't have any timeouts, so if it wasn't there he told me just to throw it away, you know, so we can kick the field goal. But, luckily, we got a match up we wanted and Tre Grimes made a great catch,” explains Trask.
But Grimes also knows to tip his hat to his quarterback.
“I see it every day in practice, we see it every day in practice so when he comes out here and he does these, these amazing things and he throws, all these touchdowns, it's nothing new to us. We see it every day in practice and it's, we've kind of we've gotten used to it. The fans are cheering for him but we just know that's what he can do, and that he has potential to do much more.”
Florida wouldn’t score another touchdown in the second half. It’s a drought that can’t happen in the SEC Championship game that the Gators are now in the drivers seat to reach. But they’d already done enough.
According to Florida, Kyle Trask’s 474 passing yards were the second-highest total in school history and just eight yards shy of Tim Tebow’s single-game school record of 482 set in the 2010 Sugar Bowl. Trask set a single-game school record for passing yards against Georgia... by the end of the third quarter, which he finished with 412 passing yards.
Kerwin Bell (408 in 1985) and Rex Grossman (407 in 2001) were the onlyGators in history to eclipse 350 passing yards against Georgia prior to Saturday. Trask joined Danny Wuerffel (five in 1995, four in 1996) and Shane Matthews (four in 1991) as the only Gators in history to throw four touchdown passes against Georgia.
Florida’s 474 passing yards were the highest total allowed by a Georgia defense since Oct. 21, 2000, when the Bulldogs ceded 528 passing yards to Kentucky. The Gators’ 44 points were the third-highest total surrendered by Georgia’s defense since Kirby Smart took over in 2016, only behind Oklahoma (48 in the 2018 Rose Bowl) and Ole Miss (45 in 2016).
“I don't think we were that conservative,” admits Trask.
“I think we were still trying to push the ball downfield. But, I think Georgia did a great job making adjustments and then we had to adjust to their adjustments to continue to move that ball down the field and get a couple of, you know, kind of put a dagger in the game."
The defense in the second half held the Bulldogs to 111 yards and 1-7 on 3rd downs, forced a quarterback change and three interceptions. One of them came courtesy of Elam and the fact he could’ve possibly had two others was the only big complaint of the day on that side of the ball.
"It was something going into the game that we said we were going to do and we did it. Our goal was to get three and we accomplished it. So it was real big.
“It felt amazing. I should have caught the second one. I actually should have had three. So I just gotta go back to the drawing board and watch film on Arkansas tonight."
While Elam might be ready to return to the film room, there’s something to be said to enjoying this win, at least for a moment. It was the game Florida had to win this year. The Gators did just that. Now they’ll be eyeing the Top 5 and Atlanta…but just like they exhibited time and again versus Georgia on Saturday, they won’t panic and jump ahead to that just yet.
This win has been three years in the making and Tre Grimes wants he and his teammates to soak in what it means.
“It means a lot to all of us, you know last year that feeling, leaving the, leaving the stadium, not being victorious is a bitter feeling and we've worked hard all year to come back for this game on. Whether people say or not this is our biggest game. And to come out victorious is just a feeling that, like I said before, it's indescribable and we're gonna cherish this for a couple days.”