JACKSONVILLE, FL—This game was supposed to mean everything for the No. 6 Florida Gators. It was a chance to all but stamp their ticket to Atlanta for the SEC Championship and perhaps weasel their way into the College Football Playoff. It was a chance for a statement game against the biggest rival, a game that head coach Dan Mullen and players had hyped all offseason.
But for the third year in a row—second under Dan Mullen—the Gators found themselves walking off the field at TIAA Bank Stadium with a solemn quietness, trudging into the tunnel as the No. 8 Georgia Bulldogs celebrated with stadium jumps and cartwheels into the endzone behind them.
Georgia has become the standard bearer in the SEC East, representing the division in the championship game the past two seasons. So how far does Mullen think his Gators are behind Kirby Smart’s program?
The 24-17 loss means his math checks out. On Saturday afternoon though, with a chilly wind coming off the St. John’s River and creating an overcast day in Jacksonville, the seven points are not what told the story. The story—by the numbers anyways—lies in the stat 12-18. That’s how many 3rd downs the Bulldogs were able to convert.
"I mean, that was a telling story. I feel like we did a good job of stopping the run but we didn't get off the field,” explained linebacker David Reese (six tackles).
"It sucks. They've got good running backs and I feel like we maintained 'em. [D’Andre] Swift is a great back, probably one of the best backs in the country, so just know we did a good job on him and couldn't get off the field on third downs, it was a little frustrating.”
The Gators did bottle up Swift, comparatively, holding him to 110 yards total (86 yards rushing on 25 touches, 24 yards receiving on one catch). The back only has two games with less production this season: Murray State, when he didn’t play the second half, and Notre Dame.
But Swift wasn’t the biggest issue for the Gators defense on Saturday. Georgia’s Jake Fromm (20-30, 279 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT) went to seven different guys on third down. It was also the first time Jake Fromm has won a game in which he threw for 30 or more passes.
“It sucks,” linebacker Jon Greenard said, echoing Reese.
“If we get off the field right there the game changes. When you stay on the field you get tired and they get their rhythm, run more plays to get us tired. That’s when stuff happens, mistakes happen and that’s when they get you.”
Adds Mullen on what the 3rd down issue was, “you can go in every direction you want to go. We had missed tackles, they got helped out a couple times, you know. Missed coverage, so…”
The “help” Mullen mentioned came on a completion that kept a Georgia drive alive. In the middle of the second quarter, with Florida trailing only 3-0, on a 3rd and six from the UF 22-yard line, Jake Fromm threw a towards the sideline to a waiting Lawerence Cager. The receiver broke away from CJ Henderson and went low; the leather appeared to bobble through his hands and hit the ground before he gained control. The review determined Cager had control.
"I just looked at the Jumbotron, so I saw what you saw,” explained Mullen.
“I asked the official, but they said that decision's made in Birmingham [in the league office]. So they couldn't even give me an explanation. That's a question for them.”
To this point in the season, no calls from the Florida media beat to the league office concerning officiating questions have been returned.
With the defense unable to get off the field on 3rd down, the offense had little time to work with and trouble converting on 3rd down themselves. The Gators ran 52 plays to Georgia’s 67 and 33%—a third—of those Gators plays came on their final drive in the 4th quarter.
“The only people we can be disappointed with is ourselves because they didn’t do anything we didn’t expect them to do,” admits Gators quarterback Kyle Trask (21-33, 257 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT).
“We prepared for everything and it was more disappointment because we’re executing our things, we should have done right.”
Adds receiver Freddie Swain (8-91, 1TD), “It was just miscommunication, penalties on us, we were shooting ourselves in the foot. Those 11 guys are pretty good but it wasn’t really nothing that they were doing that was stop us like that. It was kinda us stopping ourselves so I would say that’s what it was, miscommunication.”
Florida only had four offensive penalties for 20 yards and they weren’t the biggest issue on that side of the ball. The Gators weren’t able to find a groove all day. Things clicked early with Kyle Pitts, the tight end grabbing two receptions on the opening drive for 14-yard and 11-yard respectively. Then one of those miscommunications that Swain mentioned faltered the drive. A late substitution when Mullen sent Perine back into the game meant that the official had to stand over the ball and allow the defense time to substitute as well. That’s time that comes off the play clock since the offense has to allow for the change. The clock ticked down and Mullen was forced to call a timeout. The drive eventually stalled and called for a punt.
Kyle Trask looked somewhat flustered for the first time since taking over for the injured Feleipe Franks, twice scrambling backwards and taking sacks that accounted for a total of 29 yards lost, instead of throwing the ball away.
“Just a learning experience for him. That’ll be a learning experience. We’ll coach that. We’ll teach that. Sometimes trying to do too much. Just take what the defense gives ya. Got behind the chains a couple times with certain things. He’ll learn from those,” said Mullen.
The Gators were able to overcome some miscommunications and put together their two best drives in the 4th quarter. The first ended with a lofted arc to Van Jefferson (2-31, 1TD). The senior receiver climbed the ladder to catch the ball in air, his body and the ball breaking the plane enough that even when he came down back in the field of play, the touchdown stood.
Then with 10:01 left in the game and down by two scores, the Gators took the ball back. A 17 play, 75-yard drive that took 6:50 off the clock. The time ticked below four minutes with the Gators within the redzone and it took three plays following for Trask to deliver a quick shot to Swain to make it a one score game. But by then there was only 3:11 to go in the game and the ball was going back to an offense that had milked the clock all day.
“I mean when you’re down two, you’ve got to score once first,” said Mullen of the decision to drag out the drive.
“So it is, let’s make sure we put a solid drive together and get the touchdown first, and we did that and that’s kind of the whole thought that goes into that, you know. Don’t panic, don’t need to panic, run our offense, execute our offense, let’s take it down the field. We executed clean, we punched it in.”
It was just too little, too late.
In a fitting ending to the game, Georgia took the field with those 3+ minutes left and on a 3rd and 7 from their own 34-yard line, Fromm dropped back and found the tight end Eli Wolf down the sideline that roped the Gators team. They connected for a 22-yard completion that meant the Bulldogs could run out the rest of the clock.
Now, Florida returns home. They’re right in the middle of the Top 10 and have losses to only other Top 10 teams (No. 1 LSU, No. 8 Georgia) so where they will fall is up for debate. We’ll find out Sunday. Then next Saturday, Florida will face Vanderbilt with the SEC Championship mathematically still in reach. It’s unlikely at this point, as this head-to-head win against Georgia was crucial.
Saturday in Jacksonville wasn’t kind to the Florida Gators. That all important game tripped them up once again. But, perhaps mirroring last season when Florida ended on an impressive four game win streak that extended into 2019 as a 10-game win streak, what this team is capable of is for from over according to Trask, and they plan on proving that once again.
“I think this an elite football team. I think it’s just lack of execution, it wasn’t anything talent wise. We are an elite team. We just execute at a higher level early in games and finish drives and I think we can play with anybody in the country.”