JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Georgia has turned its season around, lifted during the week by Shawn Williams and on Saturday night by Jarvis Jones.
In a penalty-filled, turnover-ridden game, Georgia just made fewer. It used emotion as an advantage after being accused of lacking it. Its defense, called out by one of its own, led the way.
And by beating arch-rival Florida 17-9 on Saturday, the Bulldogs put themselves back in prime position to win a division championship.
Shawn issued us a challenge this week, and everyone stepped up to it, said Jones, who played like the All-America linebacker that he was last year, racking up three sacks and generally dominating the game.
The result left Georgia (7-1, 5-1 SEC) in position to repeat as SEC East champions, if the Bulldogs can beat Mississippi and Auburn. Three weeks ago, the Bulldogs were written off by many after getting shellacked at South Carolina, but now the team still has an outside shot at a BCS title.
Our goal is to get back to Atlanta, said tailback Todd Gurley, who rushed for 117 yards. Losing that game (at South Carolina), it didnt destroy anything. It was a regret for us, but we still had a chance. And we still have a chance right now.
And for good measure, the Bulldogs beat their arch-rival in back-to-back years for the first time since 1989. After several years of wilting in big games, the Bulldogs also got their first win over a team ranked in the top five since 2006. (Florida was ranked No. 3 in the AP poll and No. 2 in the BCS championship standings.)
I thought you saw a will (Saturday), a will to win, offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. And a lot of times that gets overlooked here at Georgia on certain weeks. Some of those other teams, they talk about how they exerted their will. At Georgia, they talk about how we almost lost the game. The bottom line is, we went out and got it on both sides of the ball and special teams.
The week started with Williams, the volatile senior safety, going on a premeditated rant about the play of the defense. He said the unit was playing soft and distracted, among many other things.
Williams didnt speak to the media after Saturdays game, but it was apparent his message was heard.
A very emotionally charged football game. And Id rather try to curb that than have no life, head coach Mark Richt said.
Richt returned to Williams comments several times during his postgame news conference.
They had been accused of some things that guys didnt like being accused of. And I think that helped motivate them, Richt said. I dont think there was another game this year where we quite came out of the gate the way we did this one. Maybe Vanderbilt, where I think some guys were a little bit mad about some things that happened the year before. So I gotta do a better job of figuring out how to motivate, I guess.
Williams comments might have been aimed at the defense, which entered the game ranked 49th nationally. But several offensive players said it permeated the entire team.
The whole team knew we were playing soft, man. Thats nothing we didnt know, Gurley said. So I felt like as a leader he just said that so he could motivate the guys. If thats how we played (Saturday), then, shoot, he can keep saying were soft every week so we can keep being motivated.
They werent just calling the defense soft. They were calling the whole team, Mitchell said. Because we are a team, and once you say it to one person youre saying it to everybody. So we took that as a challenge to come out and fight the whole game. And we were fighting the whole game. Because they werent gonna let up.
The defense certainly didnt let up, led by Jones. The junior from Columbus had a monster game, racking up three sacks, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and 4.5 tackles for loss. He also had a game-high 13 tackles. Overall, the defense forced six turnovers and sacked Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel five times.
It was enough to overcome a near-disastrous performance from quarterback Aaron Murray. The junior struggled through three quarters and threw three interceptions in the first half.
We talked a lot before the game about what being soft is and what being soft isnt, Richt said. The thing I mentioned to the QBs is, is if you get hit in the mouth a few times and you get sacked a few times or throw a pick here or there, and you cant get back in there and play football. So thats kind of the toughness issue a quarterback has to deal with.
Florida drew within one point with 9:41 left, as place-kicker Caleb Sturgis nailed a 50-yard attempt. Florida set it up with a draw play on third down, confident both in Sturgis leg and its ability to get another score.
But Georgias offense came through, with the help of the replay booth and a key Florida penalty.
The Bulldogs drove to midfield, helped on the first series by a third-down holding penalty against the Gators. On second down from midfield, officials initially ruled that Mitchell had dropped a 5-yard pass. The Bulldogs began to run a draw play on third down, only to have the play whistled dead because the officials wanted to review the play.
After a minute, the play was ruled a completion. It was only five yards. But Georgia decided to change the play, and it decided the game.
Murray hit Mitchell on a short comeback pattern, and then Mitchell got free from the defense and cut upfield. He shook off a tackler inside the 10 and barreled into the end zone. Georgia had its biggest lead of the game, with 7:11 left.
The play was also immediate redemption for Mitchell, a sophomore, who two plays earlier had been called for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty. Mitchell had taunted a Gators player after a catch and first down, pushing Georgia back to the 50.
After Coach Richt chewed me out a little bit, I wasnt expecting to go back in, honestly, Mitchell said. I said, I just messed up, Im not going back in. I cant live with this. Then he came back to me, Get in the next play. And I went back in.
It wasnt, however, quite over yet. The Gators offense moved downfield, finally able to run the ball on the Bulldogs. And with the two-minute mark approaching, Driskel hit receiver Jordan Reed over the middle, and Reed approached the end zone, attempting to leap in from the 2.
But from behind came Jones. The star linebacker reached over and hit Reed, popping the ball loose into the end zone.
Georgia cornerback Sanders Commings hopped on it near the back of the end zone, basically sealing the victory.
All weve done is give us a chance to play Ole Miss and make it meaningful, Richt said. We know theres a lot of work to do. And the guys were saying it before I could even saying it, so thats a good sign.