GatorZone.com Senior Writer
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – In the days leading up to Saturday’s annual Florida-Georgia game, Gators senior punter/kicker Chas Henry walked around practice chanting “redemption week, redemption week’’ to anyone within earshot.
Henry wanted redemption for himself after missing a potential game-tying field goal with four seconds left in Florida’s home loss to Mississippi State two weeks ago. He wanted redemption for the Gators, who entered Saturday’s showdown against the Bulldogs burdened by their first three-game losing streak in 11 years.
Henry also hoped for redemption in a way he could say thank you to teammates, friends and family members who kept his spirits high following his failed kick, including Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley. Henry said the day after his 42-yard attempt sailed right, stunning more than 90,000 fans at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, Foley called to check in and make sure Henry wasn’t blaming himself for the loss.
Earlier in the week, Henry wasn’t even sure if he would still be kicking on Saturday because regular kicker Caleb Sturgis appeared close to returning. But when Sturgis was unable to play, it was Henry’s job for the fourth consecutive game.
You can imagine what was racing through Henry’s head as he lined up for a 37-yard field goal in overtime against Georgia as the skies above EverBank Field started to turn dark.
“I let them down one time,’’ Henry said. “I was never going to let that happen again.’’
A Georgia native – Henry grew up in Dallas, Ga. as a star prep quarterback and kicker – he nailed the kick and released a tidal wave of emotion from the Gators, who raced onto the field and celebrated a 34-31 win in one of college football’s most storied rivalries.
“It was the most gratifying feeling,’’ said Henry, who earlier had missed four consecutive field goals until making a 34-yarder in the third quarter. “It’s my redemption week.’’
Gators coach Urban Meyer dropped to the ground when Henry’s kick sailed through the uprights. Offensive coordinator Steve Addazio hugged anyone within reach. Florida’s players mobbed Henry, who said he had never had a game-winning kick on the final play.
On Georgia’s side of the field, the Bulldogs slumped for different reasons, losing to Florida for the 18th time in the last 21 meetings.
“A victory here could have put us in a position to be in Atlanta, so now we have to realize that more than likely that dream is over and we just have to go and win some games,’’ a dejected Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said afterward.
An emotional Meyer ranked Saturday’s win as perhaps his most meaningful with the Gators.
“We needed that. My family needed that, everybody needed that,’’ Meyer said. “A bunch of families in there [locker room] needed it. This is the biggest win we've had. We've had some big wins around here and maybe [ones] people would say are more important. I would probably argue that. This is the biggest win that I can remember that I've coached in in a long time.
“These guys have been to hell and back in the last three weeks.”
The victory kept the Gators’ quest of a third consecutive trip to the SEC Championship Game alive. A loss would have eliminated Florida from contention, but if the Gators can win at Vanderbilt next week and at home against South Carolina on Nov. 13, they can pack for Atlanta.
“We were down and out,’’ Gators receiver Frankie Hammond said. “We are back in the conversation a little bit.’’
After a scoreless first quarter, the Gators took a 21-7 lead into halftime thanks to a pair of Georgia turnovers and a hurry-up offense that included shuffling quarterbacks John Brantley, Trey Burton and on occasion, Jordan Reed in and out of the game.
But in the second half, the Bulldogs climbed their way back into the game, tying the score 24-all on quarterback Aaron Murray’s 29-yard touchdown pass to Orson Charles and Murray’s run for the two-point conversion.
The teams traded touchdowns after that, with the Gators regaining the lead on Burton’s 51-yard run, and Georgia answering on Murray’s 15-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Green.
Once regulation ended, Georgia got first shot to score but instead Murray was picked off by Florida’s Will Hill, who raced 89 yards for an apparent touchdown. However following an official review, officials ruled Hill stepped out near the 1.
The Gators then had to regain their composure and take over at Georgia’s 25 with a chance to win. Four plays later, Henry sent the Florida half of the announced crowd of 84,444 home happy.
“We needed this’’ senior center Mike Pouncey said. “[The three-game losing streak] was one of the hardest things I have ever gone through.’’
Florida’s much-maligned offense finished with 450 yards, boosted by the return of junior receiver/running back Chris Rainey. The defense picked off Murray three times, led by Hill’s two interceptions. And the Gators’ defense bent for much of the second half, but when the game was on the line, the defense came up with a huge play on Hill’s interception.
With an extra week to prepare, the Gators tweaked enough to keep Georgia guessing and come away with a win, preventing an O-for-October. Meyer improved to 17-1 in rival games, and 14-1 coming off bye weeks.
Most importantly, the Gators rediscovered a winning formula.
“We've had our brains kicked in for the last three weeks and we needed to get the ship righted,’’ Meyer said. “Our young players haven't experienced a win like that.’’