JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — What looked like a runaway win for Georgia instead nearly became another near implosion Saturday.
The Bulldogs withstood 17 unanswered points from Florida in the second half when the Gators pulled within a field goal and then held on for the 23-20 win at EverBank Field.
“It makes you wonder if this is really a good way to make a living,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said afterwards. “We about lost the doggone thing. That’s why I’m subdued right now.”
The Bulldogs stormed ahead early behind the scintillating play of tailback Todd Gurley and then killed the clock with a game-ending drive that included a key 7-yard third-down by former walk-on receiver Rhett McGowan for a first down.
“How bout that!” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said as he walked through the press box when the game was clinched after a personal foul on Florida in a game between rivals that got chippy.
The Bulldogs have won three in a row against the Gators for the first time since 1987-89.
“You try to say it’s just like every other game but it really isn’t,” said Aaron Murray, who became just the third Bulldogs quarterback to win back-to-back-to-back against the Gators. “It’s a different feel. It’s awesome to be able to win it three in a row.”
The flaws of two unranked teams were both on display before 84,693 at an NFL stadium where fans are split 50-50 between the teams.
“We definitely made it interesting,” McGowan said. “Hey, I won’t complain. We got the win.”
That’s something Georgia hasn’t been able to say since Oct. 5 when it won in double overtime at Tennessee. The Bulldogs gave up 17 unanswered points to lose at Vanderbilt two weeks ago.
Hopes to win the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division remain alive for Georgia (5-3, 4-2 SEC), but not for Florida (4-4, 3-3), which has lost three in a row.
Georgia won thanks in large part to Gurley, the star tailback who returned from a sprained ankle that kept out for three games and scored touchdowns on the first two possessions.
Gurley rushed for 100 yards on 17 carries and had three catches for 87 yards.
Georgia led 23-3 in the third quarter before tight end Arthur Lynch couldn’t haul in a Murray pass that was ruled a lateral and thus a fumble. Florida lineman Leon Orr returned the fumble to the Georgia 14.
“It changed everything,” Richt said. “It changed the momentum of the game.”
Two plays later, Mack Brown’s 5-yard touchdown run with 6:21 left in the third quarter cut Georgia’s lead to 23-10. A corner blitz from Loucheiz Purifoy produced a safety with a sack of Murray in the end zone.
Tyler Murphy’s 14-yard touchdown run and two-point conversion to Clay Burton cut the lead to 23-20 with 14:20 left.
“It was slipping away,” Richt said.
Gurley scored on a 5-yard touchdown run and a 73-yard catch-and-run touchdown to help Georgia open a 17-0 first quarter lead.
With Florida driving down by three in the fourth quarter, Georgia was called for having 12 men on the field on a fourth down, but the Bulldogs withstood that with a sack from Corey Moore on a safety blitz called by defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. That play forced Florida to punt.
“It was gutsy,” Richt said. “I was with him. I was about to tell him, ‘Go sic ’em,’ but coach Grantham called it before I could even get it out of there and I told him I was with him 100 percent.”
Gurley went to the locker room in the first half after being gassed but returned and helped the Bulldogs late when they ran out the clock.
The heat will rise on Florida coach Will Muschamp, who fell to 0-7 in the series. He was 0-4 as a Georgia safety and he’s now 0-3 as the Gators head coach.
Former Georgia coach Vince Dooley spoke to the team during the week about how long it had been since the Bulldogs won three straight in the series.
“I was quite frankly kind of embarrassed that was the truth,” Richt said, “but that’s where this series had gone.”
Now it’s turned after the Bulldogs had lost 18 of 21.
“It’s nice to at least to this point,” Richt said, “get it turned around a little bit.”