GatorZone.com Senior Writer
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- As disappointing and frustrating as Florida’s season was last year, the Gators could have righted a bunch of wrongs by beating the Georgia Bulldogs.
UF started fast, jumping to a two-touchdown lead that easily could have been more. But a late second-quarter turnover led to a Georgia touchdown; a 20-yard completion on fourth-and-5, no less.
Midway through the third quarter the Bulldogs hit another fourth-down pass for a touchdown; that one for 14 yards to tie the game.
“Two plays,” reflected junior cornerback Jaylen Watkins, who was coverage for the first score. “Two plays that changed the whole game.”
Georgia’s touchdown early in the fourth quarter gave the Dawgs 21 unanswered points. And when Florida had a chance to hold on defense late to give the offense one more chance, Georgia ran the final 5:32 off the clock on nine plays, eight of them runs.
“It was certainly a low point for me,” UF defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said. “When you look back, we had chances to win the game. When you don’t, it eats at you for a long time.”
So here the Gators are, nearly one year later, and those memories are as vivid as ever.
In some cases, intentionally so.
Take defensive end Dominique Easley. Each night this week, he’s watched the bad UF plays and Georgia jubilation just to get him in a place he wants to be. Just like he did LSU week. Just like he did South Carolina week.
Easley compared the Dawgs tape to “watching a video clip of you getting punched in the face over and over again.”
It would appear, the Bulldogs have the Gators’ undivided attention as the two teams head for Saturday’s annual brawl at EverBank Field in Jacksonville. UF’ appears motivated to make amends for a big one they let get away in a season short on highlights.
Oh, there’s one more twist that some may consider significant.
The Gators (7-0, 6-0), ranked third in the country, can clinch the SEC Eastern Division with a win over the Bulldogs (7-1, 5-1).
“We understand what’s at stake,” Coach Will Muschamp said. “Again, our approach will be the same. It’s the next game.”
This has been Muschamp’s mantra from the outset. He’s done a masterful job this season of keeping the focus of his players on the Saturday ahead, rather than the dizzying possibilities that could present themselves down the line.
They carried the confidence of winning at Texas A&M to Tennessee the next weekend and took out the Volunteers in businesslike and lopsided fashion. The Gators didn’t let up against Kentucky or let the high from upsetting LSU carry over in a trap-door trip to Vanderbilt. And last week they routed South Carolina for their third win in October -- in the heart of the schedule -- after going 1-7 the previous two Octobers combined.
Next game, Muschamp says.
Next game, Gators play.
“All of our focus is Georgia this week. Nothing else matters,” junior offensive guard Jon Halapio said. “Missouri, Florida State, Atlanta the BCS -- nothing about any of that is being talked about. He does a great job of emphasizing what’s in front of us.”
That would be a Georgia team that won the SEC East last season and can take control of their division destiny with a victory Saturday. Junior quarterback Aaron Murray threw those two fourth-down daggers last season and is having another excellent campaign, passing for 273 yards per game, with 16 touchdowns and four interceptions. Murray is accurate and tough to sack because he gets rid of the ball quickly.
Linebacker Jarvis Jones is back, too. He missed last week’s win at Kentucky with a sprained ankle, but had 5 1/2 sacks through Georgia’s first five games. He did not miss last year’s Florida game, as then-UF quarterback John Brantley could attest. Jones, an incredible speed-rusher off the edge, had 4 1/2 sacks in that game.
Murray and Jones may be two familiar names to UF fans, but even the most rabid red-and-black backer knows there’s very little resemblance to the team the Dawgs rallied against last October and the one standing in the way of defending their division title this October.
The Gators, meanwhile, know they have something special building in the locker room, as well as a huge opportunity this weekend.
UF last won the SEC East in 2009.
And the Gators haven’t consecutive games to the Bulldogs since the ’88-89 seasons.
“We get another chance,” said sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel, who will get his first taste of the rivalry. “You don’t get too many second chances in life and we have yet another one this week. We’re going to make this one. I don’t want to say revenge. We’re just going to go out there and play hard.”
Georgia has the SEC’s third-ranked scoring offense (39.6 points per game), while Florida is fourth in the nation in scoring defense (12.1). How the pace of the game will break no one knows, but the Gators have been terrific at adapting to whatever the tone.
A lot of that is due to a defense allowing just 282 yards per game and having forced 15 turnovers, but equal credit goes to Driskel and an offense that can play ball control (212.7 rushing yards per game), seldom makes killer mistakes (four turnovers all season) and takes advantage of scoring opportunities (92 percent in the red zone, including 17 touchdowns in 27 opportunities).
The Bulldogs are averaging 487 yards per game on offense -- besides Murray, freshman tailback Todd Gurley (622 yards, 6.7 per carry) is drawing Herschel Walker comparisons -- but they’ve had trouble stopping the run this season, surrendering 168 yards per game on the ground.
“We got our work cut out for us again,” Muschamp said. “We felt like it was a game we let slip away a little bit last year. Had some turnovers. You have to give them some credit for the plays they made. We didn't. I know our guys will be excited.”
The track record suggests they’ll be locked in, too.
“We remember the feelings we had in the locker room after that one ... and we don’t want to feel that way again,” Watkins said. “We’ll have no regrets this time.”