Bulldogs block 'outside noise,' make their own in crucial win against Gators

AP photo by Joshua L. Jones / Georgia defensive back J.R. Reed (20) does the "gator chop" with fans in celebration after the Bulldogs beat Florida on Saturday in Jacksonville.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - All college football games are not created equally.

Take it from Georgia's players after Saturday's 24-17 triumph over Florida before a frenzied crowd of 84,789 at TIAA Bank Field. That was no ordinary win.

"We had to treat this game like it was our last game," Bulldogs junior running back D'Andre Swift said. "If we had lost, what would we have really been playing for? Some bowl game? We had to come into this game like it was our last one and approach it that way."

Had the No. 8 Bulldogs fallen to the No. 6 Gators, they would have been recognized among the sport's biggest disappointments, with last month's stunning double-overtime loss to South Carolina at home still ranking as arguably the most shocking result of the season. A Florida win Saturday would have all but clinched the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division title for the Gators, but it is Georgia that is firmly in the driver's seat with remaining league games against Missouri (which is woeful on the road), Auburn (which has a true freshman quarterback) and Texas A&M (which has regressed slightly in Jimbo Fisher's second season as coach).

The Bulldogs have never won three straight SEC East crowns but are nearing that scenario under fourth-year coach Kirby Smart with their 7-1 overall record and 4-1 league mark. Florida (7-2, 4-2) and Missouri (5-3, 2-2) are still in the picture but need Georgia to have more stumbles like the four-turnover performance against the Gamecocks on Oct. 12.

"It was an amazing opportunity for us to come out, play a physical football game, play great for four quarters and come out with a win," Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm said. "This is definitely a momentum builder for us. The Kentucky game, because of the weather, never really gave us a chance to respond to the South Carolina loss.

"We listened to the right voices and jelled at the right time."

Fromm completed 20 of 30 passes for 279 yards and two touchdowns, with his first from 3 yards to Dominick Blaylock for a 10-0 lead in the second quarter. His second scoring strike was from 52 yards to Lawrence Cager with 10:01 remaining in the game, giving the Bulldogs their largest lead at 24-10.

The Bulldogs posted a 398-278 advantage in total yards and played turnover-free for their most defining victory since their rousing double-overtime defeat of Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl national semifinal on New Year's Day 2018. They clinched the East last year with a win at Kentucky, but this was Georgia-Florida and a third straight series win by the Bulldogs.

"There was a lot more emotion with this one," defensive tackle Jordan Davis said. "There was a lot more going into this. There was a lot more preparation. Kirby was constantly motivating us to get better, because he kept telling us that it wasn't enough."

Weakside linebacker Monty Rice reflected the emotional unleashing from Saturday's win, saying, "When we win, everybody is patting us on the back. When we lose, everybody says 'We suck. We need to replace Jake Fromm. We need to throw the ball more.' We just keep doing what we're coached to do."

Smart said his biggest challenge moving forward is getting his players refocused for next weekend's home game against Missouri, but he was quick to address those who were counting out his Bulldogs.

"I really never doubted this team," Smart said. "Our team doesn't listen to the outside noise. We had four turnovers and played really poorly against an SEC opponent, and then we played in an absolute monsoon. I knew we had a good team."

The South Carolina loss still leaves Georgia with no more room for error in terms of the national picture, but that's a better predicament than where rival Florida resides. Gators coach Dan Mullen lamented the fact his offense had just 52 plays, which was the result of Georgia converting 12 third-down opportunities to only two by the Gators.

Mullen said Saturday did not clinch the East for Georgia, which is certainly accurate, but there is no doubt who is now the overwhelming favorite.

"Our motto for the whole year is to keep chopping," Cager said. "Unfortunately we lost to South Carolina. We know that, and we've put that behind us. We had the rain and mud against Kentucky and kept chopping. We've still got three more games left, and we're going to keep chopping with them."

Said Swift: "You could tell there was a different focus all the way around. The defense did a great job today. Florida barely rushed for 20 yards. We didn't hold back on offense. All hands were on deck, and we had to call whatever we had to call to win."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.