As quarterback question simmers, Georgia rides defense past Gators

Florida Gators running back Nay'Quan Wright (6) stopped by  Georgia Bulldogs defensive lineman Jordan Davis (99),Georgia Bulldogs linebacker Robert Beal Jr. (33) and Georgia Bulldogs linebacker Channing Tindall (41) during the second half of the annual NCCA  Georgia vs Florida game at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville. Georgia won 34-7.  Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com
Caption
Florida Gators running back Nay'Quan Wright (6) stopped by Georgia Bulldogs defensive lineman Jordan Davis (99),Georgia Bulldogs linebacker Robert Beal Jr. (33) and Georgia Bulldogs linebacker Channing Tindall (41) during the second half of the annual NCCA Georgia vs Florida game at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville. Georgia won 34-7. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – So, Georgia beats Florida thoroughly Saturday. Beats the chomp right out of them. In one afternoon it seems to avenge every old slight, from last year’s humbling loss all the way back to Steve Spurrier’s first cackle.

Just imagine what the Bulldogs would have done had they played the right quarterback.

ExploreA closer look at Georgia's win

Not that it would have much mattered who took the snaps Saturday – if anyone at all. Not with a voracious defense that sucked the very marrow from Dan Mullen’s Florida playbook. Three takeaways in the last three minutes of the first half – all translating into touchdowns – touched off a rout that ended up 34-7.

Still, if JT Daniels was as healthy as Kirby Smart let on this week, it would have been a hoot to see Georgia’s best arm get some work against what figures to be the Bulldogs’ last best competition before the championship tournament season. Why not at least make this a bullpen game, deploying multiple pitchers (sorry, still in Braves mode here)? The Bulldogs world aches to see Daniels again. Of course, maybe Daniels isn’t quite physically ready. That’s the easiest explanation. Coaches fib about such things.

All else about Saturday’s game went very much how it should have. The most common caution you’d hear from Georgia fans the past two weeks was some version of, “Well, you just don’t know about this game, weird stuff just seems to happen in Jacksonville.” By every tangible measure, Georgia entered Saturday superior in all ways to Florida. This was a mismatch in the making. All the Bulldogs had to be concerned about was some vague, misty sense of unease. Save that for your next audit.

We can report that nothing weird nor untoward happened Saturday, unless you count the exceptionally early exit from the west stands at TIAA Bank Field, the blue state where all the Gator fans lived. The red-staters in the east stands quickly followed when even throttling Florida became too tedious to watch.

Just as it has been and will be all season, it was the Georgia defense that set Saturday’s agenda. A defense that leads the world in allowing fewer than seven points per game gave up one garbage-time touchdown and saw its average tick up only microscopically. A defense that had been prodded by Smart to be more selfish – recording just one takeaway in each of its past three games – responded with a first half of stripping and snatching that was startling.

Smart mentioned that during one of the “nugget” sessions where coaches challenge their guys with little, pointed bits of information, they went over all the statistical categories ruled by this defense. And then dropped the hammer that it was only 70th in the country in takeaways. “That offends our guys. I can’t say that’s why we got turnovers, I can only tell you that was our attempt to challenge their pride. It worked out this week,” Smart said. It is getting harder and harder to find ways to prod this unit.

For much of that half, both teams were just kind of out there, doing their high-contact choreography to no clear purpose. When Stetson Bennett, Georgia’s replacement quarterback (at least to these eyes, still), threw a drive-killing interception, downed at the Florida 2-yard line with 3:11 left, the whole something-weird scenario almost seemed plausible. The Bulldogs led just 3-0, and the Gators still believed something good could come of the day. Until the Georgia defense put an end to that nonsense.

Just two plays later, as Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson struggled for one yard more, linebacker Nolan Smith wrenched the ball from his arms and recovered the fumble at the Florida 11. “Some guys yelling keep him up, keep him up and I keep pulling on him,” said Smith, describing the highly encouraged theft. Georgia runner James Cook slashed to the end zone seconds later.

Smith was here last year when the Gators put up 44 points and 571 yards on the Georgia D. Of this year’s game, he said, “It was personal. It was real personal.” So, he made it his personal property. For on the Gators’ next possession, he gathered in a tipped pass that set up his offense at the Florida 36. Bennett’s best throw of the day followed, a soft loft into one corner of the end zone, gathered in by Kearis Jackson.

To further drive home the point that this Georgia team will go just as far as an otherworldly defense can take it, linebacker Nakobe Dean diagnosed a Richardson pass into the flat as if he were the intended receiver. Jumping the route at full speed, he intercepted it and sprinted 50 yards for Georgia’s third touchdown in a matter of three minutes. The Dogs led 24-0 at the half, and Florida was finished.

Georgia 34, Florida 7

Looking at Georgia’s bigger picture requires some attention be paid to the offense. For it will be needed in harder games come in December and beyond.

“We didn’t play as well as we had been playing; that starts with me,” said Bennett, who finished 10-of-19 passing for 161 yards, two interceptions and a touchdown. Florida actually outgained Georgia by a yard (355-354), more quirk than consequence this day. “We got to get better on the drawing board. The good thing is, we still won 34-7. At the end of the day that’s all that matters.”

Daniels was deemed the quarterback Georgia needed at the start of the season, and he remains the quarterback it will need at the end. Despite his recovery from a strained shoulder muscle – he hasn’t played since Sept. 25 – Smart said he opted to stay with Bennett because Bennett represented “continuity.”

“Stetson’s done a good job,” Smart said. “Probably the next biggest thing is that JT has not really been in practice as much as Stetson going back to last week. We went with the guy who’s been practicing the most, been out there the most.”

His two picks Saturday notwithstanding, Bennett has been better than a caretaker quarterback. He has kept the Bulldogs moving forward in Daniels’ absence, earning has his teammates’ full support in the process. “When you talk about trusting a guy, I trust him,” Smith said. “Because he goes out there and works and puts his best foot forward. Even though it may not look pretty to y’all, he’s getting the job done.” All true. But wouldn’t you still like to see some really pretty quarterback play?

For Georgia, there is no such thing as a bad victory over Florida. Just call this one a victory that squandered an opportunity to get the Bulldogs’ best quarterback back into the flow with just a month left to prepare for bigger games that may well require his singular talent.

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