This is the kind of game that fuels the bonfires of criticism. A program builds up its fan base with a string of impressive wins, positions itself for a conference title, a playoff berth and a dream season, then napalms the sucker in one afternoon.
Georgia sees a walk-on senior, who until this season wasn’t even on scholarship and was bagging groceries at Publix, make the team look foolish with a long touchdown run on a fake field-goal play. It sees an opponent, whose offense had become a national punchline, rush for so many yards (418) that it feels the need to throw only six passes. It sees a Florida coach, Will Muschamp, who had been so maligned as to give Ron Zook a feeling of superiority, pull the plug out of Georgia’s season.
Florida 38, Georgia 20. Seriously?
This is the kind of game that ignites the periodic rage about coach Mark Richt.
“They physically whipped us,” Richt said.
Well, there it is. Notwithstanding that momentum swing everybody witnessed after the Gators scored on a second-quarter fake field goal — the Bulldogs went from a 7-0 lead to a head-spinning 31-7 deficit — it really was as simple as Georgia getting punched in the face and not responding.
How does that happen with so much on the line?
The Dogs had won their first two games without the misguided and suspended Todd Gurley. They were in control in the SEC East and were nearly a two-touchdown favorite over Florida, whose last appearance in a game resulted in a humiliating 42-13 home loss to Missouri.
Richt had done a wonderful job keeping his players focused, united and driven. The Dogs played their two best games of the season without Gurley, winning road games at Missouri and Arkansas. They were looking at probable wins over Florida and next week at Kentucky before a major showdown with Auburn.
Then it ended Saturday — like a circus act ends when the clown’s shoes explode.
This is on Richt.
It’s one thing to lose to a rival, but there’s no logical reason or excuse for this kind of performance. Richt called the early-season loss to South Carolina “a punch to the gut.” This was more like being awakened from a dream with a bucket of cold water.
“It hurts. When you lose it hurts. Period,” he said. “The opportunities you have lost more than likely make it hurt worse. I know we’re still mathematically in the hunt for the Eastern Division, and that’s what we’ll fight for, but we have to win a game next week.”
Problem: This was the season.
Playoffs are off the table. You’re not getting in with losses to South Carolina and Florida, regardless of what happens the rest of the season.
“When you’ve got those opportunities and you kinda just don’t perform …” quarterback Hutson Mason said. And he couldn’t finish the sentence.
Georgia led 7-0 early on a 39-yard touchdown run by Nick Chubb. The game was going as expected. Chubb rushed for 101 yards in the first quarter. But despite moving the ball effectively, Chubb’s touchdown accounted for the Dogs’ only points in their first four possessions (including a missed 39-yard field-goal try).
Florida’s offense, a mess all season, had produced two punts and a fumble in three possessions. But the game turned on a faked field goal. To be specific, it turned on a 21-yard touchdown run by walk-on Michael McNeely, who entered the game as a holder on a field-goal attempt. It was a fake, Georgia was blindsided and McNeely ran through a gap over right tackle and sped to the end zone.
Until this season, McNeely was bagging groceries at Publix. He quit the job in August when the Gators finally put him on scholarship.
A heartwarming story Georgia could’ve done without.
Everything changed. A Georgia returner ran into his own teammate on the ensuing kickoff. The Bulldogs suddenly look rattled on offense, then were steamrolled on defense.
“They faked the field goal, scored the touchdown, grabbed momentum and took off from there,” Richt said.
Richt added that he is “never surprised” when an opponent fakes a field goal.
Damien Swann, who was on the field, said, “I know I wasn’t really expecting it.”
Maybe they should get their stories straight.
As poor as the Dogs executed on offense after their early possessions, the collapse was the defense was most alarming. Their run defense had ranked second best in the SEC and among the nation’s best. Georgia hadn’t allowed this many rushing yards since 1978 against Auburn (430 yards, 12 more than Florida). The Gators threw for only 27.
“If you can’t stop it, why would you do something else?” defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt said. “And when you look up and see they had over 400 yards rushing, it’s pretty obvious you can’t stop it.”
Muschamp had been 0-7 in this series (0-4 as a Georgia player, 0-3 as Florida’s coach). This game didn’t necessarily save his job in the long term, but it saved it this week. The lack of confidence in him could be illustrated by some of the empty seats on the Florida side of the stadium.
As for Richt, this game was manna for critics. It wasn’t like the back-to-back losses to Florida and Urban Meyer in 2008 and 2009 by a combined score of 90-27 in that there wasn’t as much on the line for Bulldogs. But it was a crusher for this season and qualifies as a major grease stain on his resume.
The bonfires are burning again.