After years of watching Georgia-Florida football games — first on television and more recently from the UGA sideline — Hutson Mason will get to play in one Saturday.
Now in his fifth and final season with the Bulldogs, but his first as the starting quarterback, Mason hasn’t been on the field for a single play against the Gators previously. He has one game to make his mark on the rivalry.
“Growing up in the state of Georgia, definitely when late October rolls around, you’re looking for this game on TV,” said Mason, who attended Lassiter High. “You get used to hearing Gary Danielson and Verne Lundquist (of CBS) announcing the game, and you’re thinking, ‘Man, I would love to be playing in this.’
“Now it’s here. So it’s nice to sit down and cherish that it’s coming true, but not really think about it too much because you don’t want to make it bigger than it is.”
Mason knows the game is big enough — despite the Gators’ 3-3 record — to help define his one-year stint as Georgia’s starting quarterback.
“As a quarterback, you’re judged on a few things,” he said. “Did you win a championship? Did you beat your rival? Did you beat Florida? And then did you beat Tech, probably?”
Mason has settled comfortably into the role of a game-managing quarterback who makes few mistakes (no interceptions in the past two games), completes a high percentage of his passes (69.2), doesn’t throw for a lot of yards (still no 200-yard passing game this season) and generally keeps the Bulldogs’ run-first offense on track to pile up points (SEC-leading 43.4 per game).
“I think he’s in a really good place right now,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “I mean, I think he was in a good place coming into the year, (but) sometimes you have to live through being the man for a while.
“He hasn’t really thrown many balls that were ill-advised, very few of those. He’s doing a good job of getting us in the right running game, right protections. There’s a lot to what he has to do at the line of scrimmage, and he handles that well.”
Saturday brings what could be Mason’s biggest test yet this season: a Florida defense that has allowed the third fewest yards per game in the SEC.
Criticized sharply early in the season for his lack of downfield passing, Mason largely has quieted his critics with the Bulldogs’ continued offensive productivity, even minus suspended star tailback Todd Gurley.
“One thing I’ll say about Hutson: I think he’s always had confidence, and we’ve always had confidence in him,” offensive tackle John Theus said. “Going into this game, I think he knows what to do.”
Some analysts, notably including former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow on the SEC Network, have even argued that the Georgia offense has improved in Gurley’s absence the past two games.
“I think it’s pretty accurate and pretty true,” Mason said of that analysis. “You see you’ve got to rely on other people. We’ve been able to kind of open up and show what we can do, whereas when we had Todd he was so good … it was like when in doubt, give the ball to Todd.
“Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise. … When we get him back, it’ll only help us be more balanced.”
Georgia’s offense has continued to revolve around the run, with freshman tailback Nick Chubb picking up where Gurley left off, and Mason embraces that.
“We’re not a finesse offense,” he said. “We’re not going to spread you out, throw bubble screens and try to be pretty. What we do is run the ball at you, try to run it down your throat.”
Still, it seems inevitable that Georgia will encounter a game in which Mason needs to throw for 200 yards, even 300, to win.
“It might even be this weekend,” offensive tackle Kolton Houston said. “We’ll be ready when we have to do that.”
Mason has experience at Jacksonville’s EverBank Field, site of Saturday’s game, having quarterbacked the Bulldogs there in last season’s Gator Bowl loss to Nebraska.
“Two total different atmospheres and two total different feelings going into it, the Gator Bowl vs. Georgia-Florida,” he said.
Having traveled with the Bulldogs to the past four Georgia-Florida games, Mason appreciates the unique atmosphere of a stadium equally divided among fans of the two teams.
“They call it the largest cocktail party in the world for a reason,” he said. “Those people are pretty loud. They’re not drinking Capri Suns and Sunny Delight.”
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