Jarvis Jones made sure the Bulldogs would be in the fast lane for a return trip to Atlanta for the Southeastern Conference championship game by forcing a fumble with Florida driving to try to tie the game.
No. 12 Georgia went from “soft” in the words of safety Shawn Williams when the week began to hard-nosed and hard to score on in a 17-9 upset Saturday of the third-ranked Gators at EverBank Field.
Two more manageable wins in the next two weeks and the Bulldogs will clinch the SEC East title.
In an emotionally-charged game that was turnover and penalty-filled, Mitchell helped send the Gators (7-1, 6-1) to their first loss of the season with his 45-yard touchdown off a short pass from Aaron Murray with 7:11 to play.
“How many of y’all honestly thought we were going to win?” Mitchell asked reporters after the game. “Let’s be real. We knew that. … We wanted to come out and show that we could fight.”
This is exactly where the Bulldogs (7-1, 5-1) were expected to be when the season began, but looked more and more unlikely when Georgia was routed by South Carolina three weeks ago.
Georgia rebounded and bagged the type of win that had eluded Richt’s teams in recent seasons.
The Bulldogs went ahead early on a 10-yard Todd Gurley touchdown and never trailed. The score was set up by a Damian Swann sack that was recovered by Jones.
“The defense had to show up today and we had something to prove,” linebacker Mike Gillard said.
Georgia limited the Gators to three Caleb Sturgis field goals.
“I think our guys were very serious about playing with intensity, playing with some physicality,” Richt said. “They were accused of some things that guys don’t like to be accused of and I think that probably helped motivate them.”
It was just the second win against a top-10 team in 11 tries for Georgia since the start of the 2008 season and keeps the Bulldogs still in the mix for the SEC championship and perhaps a trip to BCS title game.
A year after ringing up four sacks against Florida in his All-American season, Jones had a career-high 13 tackles, including four and a half for loss, three sacks, two fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles.
With Georgia up by eight, Jones knocked the ball loose from Jordan Reed after a 13-yard catch to the Georgia 5. The ball went into the end zone and former Westside standout Sanders Commings recovered for a touchback with 2:05 to play.
“I definitely went for the strip,” Jones said. “If he scored it was going to be close and get kind of scary.”
Richt gave an earful to Mitchell, the sophomore receiver, after he was called for unsportsmanlike conduct after a 12-yard catch with Georgia clinging to a 10-9 lead.
Georgia had 14 penalties for 132 yards in the game (Florida had 10 for 95) including several personal fouls. Mitchell got his 15-yard penalty for being in a Florida player’s face after the play. That pushed Georgia back to the 50-yard line.
“I said enough to make him think that he may never get in the game again,” Richt said. “He started walking off and I grabbed the back of his shoulder pads and I said `Hey, Malcolm, I’m only going to take you out for one play. You’re going back in.’”
On the third play after the penalty on a third-and-5, Murray threw a short pass to Mitchell on the left side and he got past cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy and safety Matt Elam and two other Gators on the play.
“It was a big time play in a game where somebody needed to make a play on offense,” said Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo after a game in which Georgia outgained Florida 273-266.
Murray threw interceptions on three consecutive first-half possessions. His counterpart, Jeff Driskel (14 of 26 for 185 yards) threw a pair of interceptions and lost two fumbles in the game.
The Gators had six turnovers after entering the day with only four all season.
Richt lingered after the game for on the field to soak in the moment with Georgia fans.
It was Georgia’s first win over a top-five team since beating No. 5 Auburn 37-15 in 2006 and highest ranked win since a 34-3 win over No. 3 LSU in the 2005 SEC championship game.
All Georgia needs to do is beat Ole Miss at home and Auburn on the road in the next two games and they will play in the league title game Dec. 1.
“I did feel if we played our best, we’d have a good chance of winning,” Richt said. “I just hadn’t seen us play our best very much. That’s not good, but at this point we’re OK. We’ve still got a chance to win the East.”