Above, Georgia cornerback Damian Swann (5) and teammates celebrate after they beat the Florida Gators at EverBank Field on Saturday in Jacksonville, Fla. Below, Georgia running back Todd Gurley (3) runs with the ball against Florida during the second quarter. (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Nothing has come easy for the Georgia Bulldogs.
Even wins like Saturday’s 23-20 victory over Florida.
Mark Richt’s squad nearly blew a 20-point lead before hanging on to beat the Gators for the third-straight year, the first time that’s happened since 1979.
“I don’t know. They must like it, but I don’t like it,” Richt said of his team’s penchant for close games. “It makes you wonder if this is a good way to make a living, but it’s crazy.”
At least it was a victory.
“I don’t enjoy those games too much but it seems like every game has been like that,” said quarterback Aaron Murray, who completed 16 of 25 passes for 258 yards and one score. “But we’re used to it. We’re used to playing in tight ball games. Every week it seems like it comes down to the very last drive.”
This year, Murray’s had a knack for coming through in just those types of situations, much like he did Saturday when he and the offense held the football the final 8:17 to hang onto the victory.
“This reminded me of the South Carolina game when we ran it down their throats on the last drive,” wide receiver Michael Bennett said. “It was our guys on their guys, big on big and we ran it down their throat.
With the victory Georgia (5-3, 4-2) stays alive for the top spot in the Eastern Division but need to beat Auburn and Kentucky and have Missouri lose two of its final three conference games in order to get back to Atlanta for the third straight year.
For Florida (4-4, 3-3), it must wait until next year.
“We dug ourselves too big of a hole,” Florida head coach Will Muschamp said. “We moved the ball offensively, but we’ve got to figure out a way to create more explosive plays for our offense to gain momentum.”
Saturday’s game also marked the return of Bulldog running back Todd Gurley, who played for the first time since suffering a high-ankle sprain in the second quarter against LSU.
He didn’t disappoint, accounting for 187 total yards (17 rushes for 100 yards, three receptions for 87 yards) with two touchdowns, including one on a 73-yard catch.
“He helped a little bit, didn’t he,” Richt said. “It was so good to have him back.”
Gurley also helped play a key role in Georgia’s final drive, carrying the football eight times allowing the Bulldogs to salt the game away.
“This one could have turned bad, but we got some good stops on defense and the offense finished with that beautiful drive,” Richt said. “Anytime you can get out of here with a win, it’s special.”
Georgia appeared to be in control 23-3 at the half. But as anyone who has watched the Bulldogs this year will tell you, nothing has been easy, especially with their year-long habit of critical mistakes.
On second-and-12 Murray attempted a quick throw back to Arthur Lynch who dropped the ball. That wasn’t the worst of it.
While Lynch grabbed his helmet lamenting the drop, Florida nose tackle Leon Orr picked up the loose ball — which was ruled a lateral — and rumbled 10 yards to the Georgia 14.
Two plays later, tailback Mack Brown rolled in from the 5 to draw within 23-10.
It was about to get a whole lot crazier.
Midway through the third, a horse collar penalty on Josh Harvey-Clemons resulted in a first down and also featured a total of four off-setting personal fouls.
Florida didn’t score, but the Gators had the momentum and after a punt that pinned Georgia down at the 3, Murray was promptly sacked for a safety by cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy.
“We screwed up in the third quarter to give them some life,” Murray said. “We can’t do that. I’m just glad that we kept fighting.”
The Bulldogs certainly took their shots.
After getting the free kick, Florida quickly moved down the field, drawing within three, first on a 14-yard run by Tyler Murphy who then completed a 2-point conversion to tight end Clay Burton to draw within 23-20 early in the fourth quarter.
On Georgia’s ensuing possession, the Bulldogs decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 but Gurley, who took the direct snap, was pulled down short of the first down giving Florida back the ball, albeit after a post-possession personal foul that pushed the ball back to the Gator 46.
Florida would soon get some more help from the Bulldogs, who were called for having 12 men on the field on a fourth-and-short play.
But after the Gators were awarded the first down, Georgia’s defense finally came up with a huge play, getting a sack from safety Corey Moore forcing a Florida punt with 8:17 to play at the 17-yard line.
Florida would not see the ball again as the Bulldogs maintained possession the rest of the way, picking up a pair of key third downs before the final buzzer sounded.
“You always say ‘Every game is the same, every game is the same.’ But this one is different,” Murray said. “There’s a different feel to it. The atmosphere is different. To go out and beat these guys three years in a row, which hasn’t happened in 24 years, is just an awesome feeling.”
It didn’t take Georgia long to see what it’s been missing without Gurley (17 carries for 100 yards, three carries for 87 yards) in the lineup.
After taking the opening kickoff, Murray faked and ran 17 yards before dumping off a pass to Gurley who rumbled 14 yards to the Gator 44.
Four plays later, Gurley’s first carry resulted in a 25-yard pickup that preceded a 5-yard touchdown plunge on the next play.
For a moment it appeared that the Gators would answer right back after Tyler Murphy hooked up with Quinton Dunbar on an 83-yard pass to the Bulldog 10.
But that’s as far as the Gators would get.
Three straight plays netted just four yards and after a 15-yard personal foul on Florida receiver Solomon Patton, kicker Frankie Velez promptly missed a 40-yard field goal to keep the Gators off the board.
Gurley would promptly go back to work and on the third play of the next possession took a simple dump pass over the middle and turning it into a 73-yard touchdown play.
That would be Gurley’s last play for a while as he had to leave for the locker room after suffering from nausea, but despite his absence the Bulldog offense was able to muster a pair of drives that resulted in field goals of 49 and 27 yards by Marshall Morgan to extend the lead to 20-0.
Florida was not able to take advantage of his absence.
The only points Florida was able to muster was a 31-yard field goal by Velez before Gurley returned with just under five minutes in the quarter.
Shortly after that, Georgia’s defense gave the offense one more opportunity when the Bulldogs stopped Florida on a fourth-and-10 play from the Bulldog 38.
A pair of back completions to Michael Bennett took the ball to the 26 before an intentional grounding by Murray pushed Georgia back to the 38 with 12 seconds left.
No matter. Murray completed his next pass to Rhett McGowan for a 23-yard pickup setting up Morgan’s third field goal, a 32-yader at the buzzer to account for the 23-3 halftime score.