JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Mark Richt stepped up to the podium to face the media looking defeated. Florida had just delivered its second straight authoritative win over Georgia, a 41-17 thumping that had as much to do with the Bulldogs’ ineptitude Saturday as it did the Gators’ brilliance.
Richt breathed a deep sigh, shook his head and offered an opening sentiment that perfectly summed up the state of the Georgia program.
“Well,” he said, “he we are again.”
Indeed, it was territory all too familiar for the Georgia head coach.
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Here he was again, trying to find answers for why the Bulldogs’ rivals had beaten them for the seventh time in Richt’s nine years as coach.
Here he was again, wanting desperately to offer solutions for Georgia’s numerous self-inflicted wounds — penalties, turnovers, missed tackles and woeful coverage.
Here he was again, lamenting the latest mishap in a season that has been filled with low points, depths to which a Richt-coached team had never before endured.
Here he was again, bettered by Urban Meyer and the Florida Gators, and despite the ample experience being on the losing end of the biggest game of the season, the answers were still hard to find.
“There’s only four regular-season games left,” Richt said. “There’s no guarantee of a bowl right this moment. Will we play a game where we don’t do things that hinder us from being the best we could be? I’m responsible for all that, and I haven’t done a very good job. It’d be nice to see what could happen, and maybe we’ll see it before it’s over.”
This time was supposed to be different.
Florida had always had the high-flying offense, but the Gators entered Saturday’s game sputtering in the red zone and squeezing out late victories rather than cruising to one blowout win after another.
This time, Georgia had an extra week to prepare, more time to study the Gators’ weaknesses and design a game plan worthy of the No. 1 team in the nation.
This time, the Bulldogs donned black helmets and black pants, as much a statement of the team’s mood, it turned out, as it was a motivational tool.
Because for all the things that were supposed to be different this time, it was once again more of the same for the beleaguered Bulldogs.
Four turnovers led to 17 Florida points.
Eight first-half penalties killed any offensive momentum.
Tim Tebow, the struggling former Heisman winner, picked apart Georgia’s zone defense with precision, then capped the first half with a 23-yard run to put the Gators up 24-10 — adding further insult by moving one score ahead of former Bulldogs’running back Herschel Walker for the SEC’s all-time record for rushing touchdowns.
“That’s kind of the story line of our season so far, shooting ourselves in the foot, turnovers and mental errors,” Georgia wide receiver Michael Moore said. “Everybody has to look within themselves and find that focus.”
The Bulldogs opened the game, donning black helmets for the first time, with as much energy as they could remember a team having, quarterback Joe Cox said. The Gators took just more than two minutes to end that.
Tebow engineered an 80-yard drive for a score on Florida’s first possession, then followed with another dominant 11-play, 92-yard march to give capped by an acrobatic, one-handed grab in the back of the end zone by wide receiver Riley Cooper that gave Florida a 14-0 lead.
“I felt like I had pretty good coverage, but I looked back, and they said touchdown,” said cornerback Brandon Boykin, who was in coverage on the play. “That was a great catch, but it doesn’t change the fact that they scored a touchdown, and it’s totally my fault. I’ve got to make a play next time.”
Georgia’s offense showed some life behind a surprisingly strong rushing attack, but Florida had more magic in store. Place-kicker Caleb Sturgis connected on a 56-yard field goal with 4:47 to play in the half and Tebow’s run with 1:32 remaining seemed to slam the door shut on a Georgia comeback try.
But it was on the first play throw of the second half things truly came undone for Georgia. A.J. Jones batted a Cox pass then hauled in the deflection to set up another Florida score and the dam burst open from there. Cox was intercepted twice more, and backup quarterback Logan Gray threw a third pick that linebacker Brandon Spikes returned for the Gators’ final score, turning a potentially close game into the second straight blowout loss for Georgia in Jacksonville.
“We were totally confident coming out of the field after halftime,” said Cox, who finished 11-of-20 passing with three interceptions. “We’d moved the ball well all day. We ran the ball right at them. We were getting yards. The throwing lanes were there. We’d be moving, and then something bad would happen, and it just happened way too many times.”
The penalties and turnovers are nothing new for the Bulldogs, who entered the game among the worst teams in the country in both categories. But with an extra week to prepare, coaches hoped Saturday’s game would be different.
Instead, it was perhaps the most emphatic indictment of Georgia’s preparation yet, and the Gators were more equipped than any previous opponent at turning mistakes into points.
“We had two weeks to prepare, I thought we had a very good game plan, I thought our guys were very confident about what we were going to do,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “We executed, but we didn’t execute it very disciplined. But good defenses make you make mistakes, and (Saturday) they capitalized on them.”
After the game, Cox took the brunt of the criticism, but there was plenty of blame to go around, from the drive-killing penalties to the defensive ineptitude to the bad decisions made by Cox at crucial times.
“I beat the team with my mistakes. We had some penalties, especially on that first drive when we were moving the ball well and we get a 15-yard penalty,” Cox said. “It wasn’t a good executed football game.”
That has become a common refrain for the Bulldogs, and for the first time in his career, Richt is presiding over a team that could potentially miss a bowl game, a team with four losses before Nov. 1, a team whose momentum is pointed squarely in the wrong direction.
For that, Richt said, there just aren’t many answers.