IN THE CROSSHAIRS

Georgia’s Active Defensive Pursuit Overwhelms Florida

Ken Cross

October 31, 2023 at 12:27 pm.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – When No. 1 Georgia scored 36 unanswered points in defeating the Florida Gators, 43-20, it marked Georgia’s continuing subjugation in the series as the Bulldogs have now won five of the last six match-ups.

It wasn’t always like this. The Gators were 10-3 against Georgia before these struggles satarted and legendary head coach Steve Spurrier posted an 11-1 record against the rival in his 12-year career.

But, times have changed in the rivalry as Georgia head coach Kirby Smart has orchestrated his program into two national championships. The Bulldogs are now looking for a third in starting this 2023 season with an 8-0 mark and 5-0 in the SEC.

Smart’s team has been able to leave the Gators in the dust by outscoring them, 39-19, on average in these last three seasons. He has used Georgia’s best efforts of the last 30 years in building his Bulldogs to a level where potentially they can win three national titles in a row. That hasn’t been accomplished since Minnesota won three in a row from 1934-1936.

“You can’t win the East without going through Jacksonville most of the time,” said Smart. “It may not play out that way, but in years past, we have shown them the stat where eight of the last 10, seven of the last 10, it’s come through Jacksonville.”

This year, Georgia’s domination rang a similar tune as the Bulldogs scored 36 points in a row after falling behind Florida, 7-0, on the game’s first drive.

Gators quarterback Graham Mertz fashioned a 7-play, 66-yard drive to begin Georgia’s time with the ball. He found Eugene Wilson with a 25-yard touchdown pass after he hit Wilson for 28 on the series’ first play.

Georgia made defensive adjustments after that initial Gators drive and Florida had no answer. The Gators had to punt on five of the next eight drives while losing a fumble and being held twice on downs.

“The field position battle is overwhelming to a defense when you feel like you are constantly backed against the wall,” commented Smart. “I don’t know what yard line we were on those two times, but it was a big momentum builder.”

After Georgia had taken a 10-7 lead, Florida faced a 4th-and-1 on the Bulldogs’ 31-yard line. With the small yardage, the Gators called a direct snap to running back Trevor Etienne, who was lined up at his running back position.

Bulldogs linebacker Smael London diagnosed the play and stopped Etienne in the backfield for a loss of three yards which held the Gators on downs.

“We made too many critical mistakes,” said Florida head coach Billy Napier. “I think, in particular, those two big mistakes we made in the first half allowed this game to get out of control to some degree.”

The deep snap into the backfield on fourth down and less than a yard was a tough call against a defense with Georgia’s speed. Napier said that one was “one of many plays that we would like to have back.”

Georgia’s Taijun Edwards next scored from 20 yards out for a 17-7 Bulldogs advantage.

The next play the Gators would like to repeat came on the subsequent Florida drive. After Mertz was sacked for a nine-yard loss on 1st-and-10 at his own 25, Georgia’s Tyrion Ingram-Dawkins sacked Mertz and forced a fumble which Marvin Jones, Jr. recovered at the Gators’ 11.

Edwards scored from two yards out to give Georgia a 24-7 lead with 10:34 remaining before halftime.

“If anything, we are overdoing it,” Smart said of the fast defensive start which also showed the Bulldogs’ focus from the beginning. “We do a lot with our players. We do a walk-through. We do a 100-play script the day before every game.”