Dan Mullen’s Gators offense too good for Georgia’s great defense

After Georgia’s 44-28 loss to Florida on Saturday there will be a lot of talk about how the the Bulldogs offense still isn’t championship-caliber. Coach Kirby Smart benched quarterback Stetson Bennett for D’Wan Mathis in the third quarter. It’s another opportunity to note that Smart let Justin Fields leave Athens without ever showcasing him.

But 28 points usually is enough for the Bulldogs to win. They are almost always sound on defense under Smart. Georgia had the nation’s best defense through five games, per Bill Connelly’s formula, which adjusts for game situation and opponent strength. There was a significant gap to No. 2-defense Wisconsin.

That’s why it was shocking to see the Gators score six of eight times they had the ball in the first half. Florida made one big mistake when Georgia cornerback Eric Stokes intercepted Kyle Trask’s pass and returned it 37 yards for a touchdown. The Gators shrugged it off and scored the next four times they had the ball to turn a tight game into a rout.

The Gators needed only four possessions to score 21 points Saturday. They had 38 points at halftime. Florida scored 24 consecutive points in the second quarter to turn a tight game into a runaway. Georgia trailed by 17 points at halftime and never got closer than 13.

The Gators didn’t do much with the ball after halftime. It didn’t matter because their offense was fantastic before that. For years, Gators coach Dan Mullen had been unable to solve a defense molded by Smart. Now he joins the short list of coaches to do it.

Mullen had faced Smart 11 previous times as head coach or offensive coordinator. His teams averaged less than 12 points in those games. The 2008 Gators scored 31 points against Smart’s Alabama defense in the SEC Championship game. Tim Tebow was Florida quarterback and Urban Meyer was head coach. Those Gators won the national championship.

That’s the only time Mullen’s offense scored more than 20 points with Smart on the other side. Mullen’s team lost to Georgia the past two seasons while scoring 17 points in each game. Florida’s quarterback in the 2018 game, Feleipe Franks, now is at Arkansas. Trask didn’t do much until late in last season’s game against Georgia.

Trask is much better now. Mullen has coached Tebow, a Heisman Trophy winner, and future NFL Pro Bowl quarterbacks Alex Smith and Dak Prescott. Trask was a three-star recruit in the 2016 class. With Mullen, he’s become a top NFL prospect and Heisman contender.

Trask passed for 474 yards and four touchdowns with the one interception. The Gators totaled 571 yards on 80 plays for 7.1 per snap. Georgia had three defensive starters out, including star nose guard Jordan Davis and senior safety Richard LeCounte. The Bulldogs supposedly have a lot of defensive depth via Smart’s recruiting, but the Gators wore them down.

The Gators averaged 42 points in their first four games. They hung 51 points on Ole Miss, which is bad on defense. But Florida also scored 38 in a loss at Texas A&M, which has a pretty good defense. It was supposed to be harder against the Bulldogs.

Thing is, it wasn’t easy for the Gators. Even with run-stuffer Davis out, Florida couldn’t find much room to run. Georgia pass rushers harassed Trask. The Bulldogs had a couple of confused moments in pass coverage — LeCounte might have helped with that — but they usually were in position to defend.

Georgia offered resistance. It just didn’t matter. The Gators were too good.

Trask placed passes into tight spaces. Florida’s tight ends and receivers fought off physical coverage to snag them. Gators running backs slipped out of the backfield for catch-and-runs past Georgia linebackers. No matter what the Bulldogs did, the Gators couldn’t be stopped.

That hardly ever happens. LSU picked Georgia apart in last year’s SEC Championship game, but the Tigers had perhaps the best college offense ever. They did that to nearly every foe. When Alabama scored 41 against Georgia last month, the Crimson Tide offense benefited from short fields.

In this game, Georgia’s defense wasn’t overwhelmed by an otherworldly opponent or stymied by game circumstances. Florida’s offense is very good, but there are better outfits in college football. Field position wasn’t working against Georgia: Florida’s first four touchdown drives went 75, 80, 75 and 81 yards.

By then it was clear the Bulldogs were in trouble. That’s why a shanked punt that gave Florida the ball at Georgia’s 48-yard line looked ominous even though there were just 39 seconds until halftime. The Gators faced a third-and-2 when Trask lofted a pass to the end zone for Trevon Grimes, who was tightly defended but jumped to make the catch anyway.

That’s how it went for the Bulldogs. They couldn’t prevent Florida’s pitch-and-catches, especially along the sideline. Gators tight end Kyle Pitts was a big problem on such plays. He left the game with an injury after taking a vicious hit from Georgia safety Lewis Cine. Officials ejected Cine for targeting, further thinning Georgia’s secondary, but Trask was without his top target for the second half.

That’s when the Gators slowed. They didn’t score on four consecutive possessions after halftime. Georgia’s defense was better, and Trask wasn’t as sharp.

Florida’s first drive after halftime stalled, and Evan McPherson kicked a 51-yard field goal. Georgia’s next drive ended with Bennett’s interception, but the Gators couldn’t convert it to points. Mathis replaced Bennett and led the Bulldogs to a touchdown to cut their deficit to 41-28 before the end of the third quarter.

Now the Gators needed more points to put Georgia away. Their next possession halted when Trask’s third-down pass sailed over the head of wide receiver Justin Shorter. McPherson’s 44-yard field-goal try was wide right, his first miss on 19 attempts this season. Florida’s defense forced a three-and-out, but the Gators ran three plays and punted the ball back.

The Gators, leading 41-28, tried to convert a fourth-and-4 with four minutes left. Trask’s pass for Shorter was off target again. He nearly threw an interception on Florida’s next possession. Then Mathis did throw a pick to safety Shawn Davis, who ran it back to Georgia’s 16-yard line.

It turned out Florida’s offense didn’t need to do much after halftime. The Gators had done plenty before that. After so many years of trying, Mullen finally figured out how to put up points on Smart’s defense.