JACKSONVILLE -- Florida fans have seen this movie before.
Despite the Gators’ defense making several momentous plays and pitching a shutout in the second half, a nightmare start and some foolish penalties were too much to overcome, and Florida fell to Georgia 23-20 on Saturday.
It is the first time Georgia has beaten UF in three consecutive seasons since 1987 to ’89.
With both teams entering the annual rivalry game at 4-3 (3-2 in the Southeastern Conference) and desperate for a win to buoy injury-plagued seasons, Georgia fans pinned their hopes on the return of star running back Todd Gurley, who missed the previous three games with an ankle injury.
After less than a quarter, the sophomore left the Gators stunned and down 14-0.
“We’ve got to get out of the gate quicker to create momentum for our team,” UF coach Will Muschamp said.
Gurley, who hadn’t played since Sept. 28, immediately provided the spark that the Bulldogs’ offense had been missing, taking his first carry for 25 yards, catching a 14-yard pass and scoring the game’s opening touchdown from 5 yards out.
On Georgia’s next drive, quarterback Aaron Murray took advantage of a blown coverage with a quick pass to a wide-open Gurley. Two missed tackles and 73 yards later, Gurley stood in the end zone for the second time in the game’s first 5 minutes 41 seconds.
Despite being sidelined briefly for portions of the first and second quarters with an upset stomach, Gurley finished with 187 total yards on 20 touches.
By the end of the first quarter, Georgia had piled up 258 yards of total offense. Entering Saturday, Florida had been allowing an average of 273 yards per game.
Before the Gators knew what hit them, Georgia held a 23-3 halftime lead.
But as it has for most of the season, Florida relied on its defense to breathe life into the team. Defensive tackle Leon Orr recovered a third-quarter fumble that left the Gators just 14 yards to paydirt. After a Johnny Townsend punt pinned the Bulldogs at their own 2-yard line, cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy blitzed from Murray’s blind side and got the sack for a safety.
The UF defense even stopped Gurley on a fourth-and-1 in Georgia territory with less than 12 minutes left in the game.
The Gators’ offense was inspired by the turnovers and seized momentum in the second half with 14- and 50-yard touchdown drives to make it a one-possession game.
Ultimately, it wasn’t enough.
“It definitely hurt. To come out of halftime, you could feel the energy from guys,” UF quarterback Tyler Murphy said. “We definitely believed we could come back and win it. We had so much momentum; you couldn’t tell me we weren’t going to win it.”
But the Bulldogs were the better team Saturday, with the Gators squandering too many opportunities to complete the comeback.
Florida’s biggest offensive play of the game was a first-quarter bomb from Murphy to Quinton Dunbar. Despite gaining 83 yards — career longs for both players — the Gators didn’t score.
Murphy finished 13 of 29 for 174 yards with one rushing touchdown.
A personal foul penalty on receiver Solomon Patton prevented the Gators from scoring after Murphy’s long play to Dunbar by making the ensuing field-goal attempt 13 yards longer than it should have been. Francisco Velez missed the 40-yard attempt, killing any early momentum the Gators might have had.
Dead-ball penalties were a theme throughout the game, especially for UF, so it was fitting that Georgia picked up the clinching first down with just over a minute to play on a Darious Cummings personal foul after a third-down stop.
“It’s hard to see some of that, so whatever they call, they call,” Muschamp said. “The last 24 years, the University of Florida, we’ve led the SEC in penalties 20 of 24 [years], either first or second. That’s long before I got here, so it’s interesting. But it is what it is.”
Though both teams received offsetting penalties multiple times in the game, UF’s seven penalties cost it dearly. Even after all the self-destructive behavior, Florida still had a chance late after the fourth-and-1 stop in Bulldogs territory with under 12 minutes to play.
Instead of taking over at the Georgia 39, however, Florida started the drive at its own 46 because of a personal foul by Neiron Ball.
The Gators never got into field-goal range, were forced to punt and never got the ball back as Georgia killed the last 8:17 by converting on third-and-1, third-and-2 and third-and-7.
“Third down was a killer, obviously, there at the end, not being able to get off the field,” Muschamp said. “In those situations, we’ve got to be able to convert some third downs and force a punt in that situation, especially with the amount of time on the clock. I’m disappointed in that.”
The Gators, now 4-4 (3-3 SEC), will be haunted by their miscues. The coaching staff mismanaged the clock to end the first half, giving Georgia an extra three points at the break. The offense capitalized on a few short fields but was inconsistent for most of the game.
And while the defense swung the momentum with big plays and dominated most of the second half, it couldn’t force a punt in the clutch.
There was plenty of heart in the performance. The Gators’ talent shone in spots. But it just never came together quite like it could have.
In other words, it was the story of this year for the Gators.