Georgia in unfamilar territory after loss to Florida

ATHENS — What now?

That was the question reverberating throughout the Bulldog Nation after No. 5 Georgia fell to eighth-ranked Florida 44-28 Saturday in Jacksonville, Fla. As a result, the Bulldogs (4-2) find themselves in unfamiliar territory. That is, no longer in control of their own destiny in the SEC East.

It’s the first time Georgia has experienced that dynamic since Kirby Smart’s first season as head coach in 2016, when it also started 4-2. The Bulldogs finished 8-5 that year.

Now they need to win out and Florida (4-1) to lose twice more to have any chance of returning to the SEC Championship for a fourth consecutive season. That’s not likely to happen.

“I’m not going to say the sky is falling, that everything is coming down,” said Smart, who suffered just his second loss in 21 games against the East the last three seasons. “Hey, we’ve gotta get better, we’ve gotta get our players to play better and we’ve got to be explosive. You know what I mean? … But the sky’s not falling.”

It’s not. But what’s unknown now is how motivated and focused the Bulldogs might be going forward without a championship to chase.

“I know that the guys, we love each other, like, we love to fight,” Georgia receiver Kearis Jackson said. “We’re facing some adversity and we just have to respond to it.”

Said cornerback Eric Stokes: “It’s a loss, but we’ve got to go out there and do our job next week. We can’t hang our heads. We can’t get down. And we as leaders have to pick up the young guys.”

Unless Florida slips up a couple of times, the best the Bulldogs can do now is go 8-2 and play in a major bowl. But the first step toward that goal starts next Saturday against Missouri. The Tigers (2-3) were off.

“Nobody’s going to feel sorry for us,” Smart said. “We’ve got to get ready to go play. The leadership on this team will handle that. They’ll bounce back.”

Here are five more things we learned Saturday:

1. Offense in critical condition

The heat will be turned all the way up on the quarterback competition when the Bulldogs get back onto Woodruff Practice Fields this week. But that’s just part of the problem for Georgia’s offense, which gained 141 yards and scored two touchdowns in the first quarter, but then just 136 yards and no points the rest of the game.

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The 277 total yards were the lowest offensive output since the Bulldogs played Kentucky in a monsoon last year. And that was against a Florida defense that entered the game ranked 75th in the country in total defense (433.3 ypg) and 102nd against the pass (300.3 ypg)

Georgia is going to be even more frustrated after watching the video replays on Monday because there were plenty of explosive plays for the taking. Open receivers twice dropped on-target passes, and the two quarterbacks missed open wideouts deep on five other plays.

“I really feel like we can throw the ball,” Smart said. “It doesn’t look like it on the stats, but you saw it tonight. Anybody with an open eye would say, ‘well, they did have some guys open.’ We did protect the quarterback pretty well early on. We’ve got to be able to throw and catch it. And (Florida) did. So, that was the difference in the game.”

2. Receiver concerns

Georgia’s aerial cause wasn’t helped by an ever-depleting receiver corps. For the second straight game, sophomore star George Pickens did not travel with the Bulldogs despite having what was initially described as a “not too serious” upper-body injury (believed to be shoulder). That meant a major role for freshman Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint at Pickens' X receiver position. He didn’t start because of UGA’s three tight-end set to open the game, but was a big part of the Bulldogs' plans on Saturday.

Unfortunately, Rosemy-Jacksaint’s day ended just three minutes and 16 seconds after it began. A hit by Florida defensive back Rashad Torrence fractured his right ankle on a 36-yard touchdown catch and he will be out for the year.

Georgia was already down two other receivers coming into the game. Freshman Arian Smith, who suffered a knee injury over the summer, traveled and played for the first time this season but didn’t catch any passes. Junior Trey Blount and walk-on sophomore Jaylen Johnson also played.

Jackson led the receivers with three catches for 48 yards, including a 25-yard touchdown from D’Wan Mathis. Freshman Jermaine Burton had to only other catch for the wideouts.

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

3. Wheel routes an issue

Georgia’s secondary was constantly exploited by running backs catching the ball out of the backfield, often on the dreaded “wheel route.”

Florida’s running backs accounted for 10 catches for 212 yards in the game, including 5 for 100 by junior Malik Davis. Add the seven catches by slotback Kedarius Toney, and the majority of quarterback Kyle Trask’s 30 completions went to players lined up behind the line of scrimmage.

“It was just a great game plan,” said Georgia’s Eric Stokes, who had a 36-yard interception return for a touchdown. “They already knew it was something we were already going through. We just have to go back and fix the problem.”

It didn’t help that Georgia was without star safety Richard LeCounte, who is likely out for the season after a motorcycle crash last Saturday. Then the Bulldogs lost their other safety, Lewis Cine, when he was disqualified (and concussed) after a targeting hit on tight end Kyle Pitts. Cine will now miss the first half of the Missouri game. Pitts also left the game and did not return.

Junior Christopher Smith and true freshman Major Burns ended up playing most of the snaps at safety.

Smart was still burning about all the busted coverages.

“I can’t live with leaving a guy wide open on a wheel route,” he said. “That’s your guy; you should have him. But you look at him and you don’t (cover) him. Those were the breakdowns that we had.”

4. Special teams are important

Georgia also had some breakdowns on special teams. Two, specifically, both of them shanked punts by talented punter Jake Camarda. The normally reliable junior from Norcross came in ranked No. 2 nationally with a 50.4-yard average, which included no shanks.

Camarda’s first shank was incredibly costly. It came with the Bulldogs backed up in their own territory and trailing 31-21 with 45 seconds remaining in the first half. Looking for one of Camarda’s patented 60-yard “field flippers,” the ball shot off the right side of his right foot and out of bounds after just 23 yards.

The Gators took over at Georgia’s 48 with 39 seconds on the clock and needed only 28 of them to score another TD to extend the lead to 17 points.

“I’m counting on who I think is the best punter in America to take care of me and hit a bomb down there and he didn’t hit a bomb,” Smart sighed.

Camarda, who had a 63-yarder earlier in the game, also had a 32-yard shanker early in the fourth quarter that allowed the Gators to take over at the their own 47, but they were unable to capitalize.

Otherwise, Georgia played well on special teams. Jackson had a 56-yard kickoff return that was one of three kicks and one punt he returned for a total of 108 yards. The Gators netted zero return yards.

5. Georgia’s beat up

Stokes said LeCounte sent a group text to the defensive backs before the game letting them know that he believed in them and would be rooting for them. The senior captain was injured in a motorcycle accident just an hour after the Bulldogs returned from Kentucky on Oct. 31. LeCounte was hospitalized three nights with a concussion and shoulder and rib injuries. The SEC Network reported Saturday that LeCounte said he’ll be out four to five weeks. If true, that’s the rest of the season.

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Cine appeared concussed when he had to leave the game for a first-half targeting hit and Tyrique Stevenson went to the sidelines clutching his arm but returned. The Bulldogs already were without noseguard Jordan Davis (elbow) and tackle Julian Rochester (knee)

On offense, quaterback Stetson Bennett played the second and third quarters with a sprained AC joint in his right throwing shoulder and finally had to leave. He’ll be evaluated this week. Receiver Jermaine Burton (arm) and running back Kendall Milton (knee), both freshmen, each had to be helped off the field. Smart said Burton is “fine” and that Milton may have an MCL sprain.