JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Georgia’s game against Florida on Saturday was as much a back-alley brawl as it was a football game, but that's exactly what the Bulldogs believe they needed in order to come away with a 17-9 win over the Gators, ranked No. 2 in the nation.
After struggling for weeks to play with the toughness required of a championship-caliber football team, the Bulldogs challenged themselves this week to match the physical Gators punch for punch. And while the results were not entirely favorable -- the Bulldogs drew a whopping 14 penalties for a season-high 132 yards -- their vow to show off a nasty streak made an enormous difference.
“We got called out as a defense,” Bulldogs linebacker Michael Gilliard said. “Coach [Mark] Richt, he showed us what people on ESPN were saying about us, saying we’re soft and basically how the nation felt about us. So we wanted to come out as a defense as a whole and beat the No. 2 team in the country. And I feel like that’s what we did and we did a great job of it.”
The difference was evident in Georgia’s defense from the get-go. Previously streaky players, including Gilliard -- whom safety Shawn Williams indirectly accused of playing soft earlier in the week, which generated headlines -- Cornelius Washington, Bacarri Rambo, Damian Swann and John Jenkins made key plays that helped the Bulldogs shut down Florida’s vaunted running game. And they did it by coming out looking for a fight.
“We’ve got to continue to play like this,” said outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, who threw the most figurative haymakers with 13 tackles, 3 sacks, 4.5 tackles for a loss, 2 forced fumbles and 2 fumble recoveries. “We’ve got to continue to challenge ourselves no matter who we play every week, and play at a high level from the beginning to the end. I think if we do that, I think we can be a dominant defense, one of the best defenses in the country.”
The question now is: How will the Bulldogs harness the energy they generated for the Florida game -- or earlier this season for Vanderbilt, when hard feelings remained from the conclusion of last season’s game -- and make it carry over for future outings? If one element of Georgia’s play has frustrated fans this season, it’s the seemingly inconsistent effort and focus from one week to the next.
Jones, however, does not believe it will be difficult to carry this renewed defensive swagger into next Saturday’s game against Ole Miss.
“I don’t think [it will be hard],” Jones said. “I think it’s mental. I just go out there and give everything I’ve got every play. I think that’s what every guy did. And I think this week, we’re just going to have to get them to look at it the same way -- that even if we have to post Florida up there for every game, just look at the Florida signs in the locker room. Even if we had to do that, I think if we bring that mentality every week, I think we can be a very dominant defense.”
That dominant defense had not shown up before the Florida game, which is why so many doubts existed about the Bulldogs’ collective manhood. The players looked themselves in the mirror before facing the Gators, however, and put together their toughest performance in years for a win that puts Georgia in position to defend its SEC East title.
“Not many people gave us a chance, and I don’t blame them. If I’d have watched the film, if I was a fan and I knew football and I’m studying it, I’d say Florida would win the game,” Richt said. “If I was just totally impartial and watching what was going on, I would say I can’t really see how Georgia could win this game just from what was done up until this point.
“But I did feel like if we played our best we’d have a good chance of winning, I thought -- if we played our best. I just hadn’t seen us play our best very much, and that’s not good. But at this point, we’re OK. We’ve still got a chance to win the East and that’s what we’re hoping for.”