JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Stetson Bennett remained Georgia’s quarterback and the Bulldogs’ defense remained the best in college football as the Bulldogs validated their No. 1-ranking with a convincing 34-7 win over Florida on Saturday.
The victory avenged Georgia’s 44-28 loss to the Gators here last year, was its fourth win in the past five meetings in the series and ultimately clinched the SEC Eastern Division championship after Mississippi State defeated Kentucky later Saturday.
The Bulldogs improve to 8-0 (6-0 SEC) for the first time since 2017. Georgia returns home next Saturday to take on Missouri (4-3, 1-3), which got its first conference victory with a 37-28 win over Vanderbilt in Nashville.
Spurred by a flurry of defensive takeaways at the end of the second quarter, the Bulldogs broke open a tight game to leap ahead 24-0 at halftime. Georgia managed one field goal and a late touchdown in the second half, but that was more than enough.
“It was a strange game, a game of momentum and momentum plays,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “The momentum right before the half was obviously big. Basically, our turnovers were not as costly as their turnovers.”
Florida’s were very costly. Nolan Smith’s interception and a snatch-away fumble recovery deep in Florida territory set up two Georgia touchdowns in the final 2:16 of the second quarter. Then inside linebacker Nakobe Dean jumped in front of a pass for Florida’s Malik Davis and returned it 50 yards for a touchdown with seven seconds remaining in the first half. That staked the Bulldogs to a sudden 24-0 lead.
Meanwhile, after two weeks of debate about whether Georgia should start an apparently healthy JT Daniels at quarterback, the Bulldogs stuck with Bennett from the beginning. The senior got his fourth consecutive start and led Georgia four scoring drives, a couple of them very short thanks to the defense.
But while Bennett improved to 5-0 as the Bulldogs’ starting quarterback this season, the debate likely will continue. He threw two interceptions on a pair of very ill-advised passes and was called for grounding on Georgia’s opening possession on a play that ultimately took the Bulldogs out of scoring range.
But Bennett also made several plays with his feet, avoiding pressure several times to extend plays and rushing for positive yards. He had 35 yards on the ground, with a long run of 20 yards.
“Yeah, we didn’t play as well as we have been playing (on offense) and that starts with me,” Bennett said. “We’ve got to get better, get back to the drawing board. But the good thing is we won 34-7. At the end of the day that’s all that matters. That’s what we come here. It doesn’t matter how much we win by or how well we play on whichever side of the ball.”
Zamir White led the Bulldogs with 105 yards rushing on 14 carries, the last of which resulted in a 42-yard touchdown with 1:57 to play. It was White’s first game of 100 or more yards this season.
James Cook added 46 yards on 10 attempts and an 11-yard touchdown. Kearis Jackson led Georgia in receiving with 59 yards on three catches, including a 36-yard touchdown.
Georgia was clinging to a 3-0 lead and seemingly had lost momentum when Bennett threw an interception at the Florida 2. But just two plays later, Smith ripped the ball out of quarterback Anthony Richardson’s arms as he drove for extra yardage on 10-yard run. Smith ran out of the pile with the ball and seemed to have scored, but video review proved his knee hit the ground. No problem. Cook scored on Georgia’s first offensive play.
Three plays later on Florida’s ensuing possession, Richardson’s pass over the middle was deflected by defensive end Travon Walker. Smith, in coverage in the flat, spotted it and hauled it in at the Florida 36. On the next play, Bennett hit Kearis Jackson with a perfectly-thrown pass in the far left corner of the Gators’ end zone.
Florida tried to hurry through the final 1:35 to answer the score. But the Gators’ haste proved even more costly. Dean picked off Richardson’s pass for running back Malik Davis on the dead run at the 50 and never stopped until crossing the goal line with 7 seconds remaining in the half. Suddenly, the Bulldogs led 24-zip.
“Probably the play of the game,” Smart said. “I was glad to see ‘Kobe get that.”
With the loss, Florida falls to 4-4 and 2-4 in SEC play. The Gators gave quarterback Anthony Richardson his first start of the season. He finished with 82 yards on 12-of-20 passing, but gave way to Emory Jones in the second half. Jones, who is from LaGrange, was 10-of-14 passing for 112 yards and scored Florida’s only touchdown with 4:53 remaining.
The Gators’ 355 yards was the most allowed by Georgia this season and surpassed the Bulldogs’ 354 on the final play of the game. And while not meaningful to the outcome of the game, Florida’s late score extended its streak to 418 games without being shutout. The last time the Gators didn’t score was against Auburn in 1988.
But the Bulldogs weren’t hanging their heads about giving up a score, not after allowing the Gators eight of them last year.
“It was personal; it was real personal,” Smith said, without elaboration.