“Thank God for grad transfers!”
That was a text a friend sent me Saturday night, immediately after Kirby Smart’s eighth-ranked Dawgs had beaten the No. 6 Gators for the third year in a row.
Yes, when UGA fans fondly recall the 2019 game in Jacksonville in years to come, the names of wide receiver Lawrence Cager, a graduate transfer from Miami, and tight end Eli Wolf, another graduate transfer from Tennessee, are sure to figure prominently.
Sure, a strong bounce-back game by quarterback Jake Fromm, great pass protection by Georgia’s sometimes underperforming offensive line, tough running by D’Andre Swift against a stout Florida defensive front, a couple of big plays by Brian Herrien, and James Coley apparently finding some misplaced pages of Georgia’s offensive playbook also factored into the big win.
But, in a game where the Georgia defense shut down their opponent’s running offense almost completely while also managing to contain the Gators’ formidable receiving corps much of the time, the real key to the Dawgs beating a Top 10 team for the second time this season was in rediscovering their own passing game — mostly in the person of Cager, who returned from injury to have a career day, catching 7 passes for 132 yards, including a 52-yard scoring strike and a catch for a 2-point conversion.
As Coley said after the game, “What a difference No. 15 makes, huh?”
Three of Cager’s first-half catches were third-down conversions, as the Dawgs completely turned things around in that aspect of the game against the Gators defense led by former UGA assistant Todd Grantham. Whereas Georgia was only 3 of 12 on third-down conversions against Kentucky, the Dawgs finished the Florida game 12-of-18 on third-down tries (8 of 11 in the first half), including a 22-yard reception on a 3rd-and-7 by Wolf to allow Georgia to kill the clock and seal the win in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. Yes, “third-and-Grantham” is still a thing.
Florida was only 2 of 9 on third down, though they did convert 2 of 3 fourth-down tries.
Remarkably, there were no turnovers in the game by either side.
With the OL having its best game against the pass rush (Florida came into the game leading the league with 29 sacks, but got none against Georgia), Fromm had a fine game, completing 20 of 30 passes for 279 yards and 2 TDs, with no interceptions. He also was effective scrambling to avoid Gator defenders.
Against a very good Florida front that stacked the box and got quite a few tackles for loss, things didn’t go quite a smoothly in the running game for Georgia. The Dawgs did run for 119 yards — mostly in very small chunks, though Swift did tear off a 30-yarder where he hurdled a defender. He led UGA runners with 25 carries for 86 yards. Georgia’s running game again took a while to get going, especially in the first quarter, and mainly started clicking when Swift was able to bounce it outside.
Swift also had one catch for 24 yards and fellow running back Herrien had 4 for 46 yards (including one incredibly acrobatic 18-yard catch that would do any wide receiver proud). Herrien also had a season-high 27-yard kickoff return, as Georgia’s special teams play took an upswing.
For the 14th straight year in the series, the team with the most rushing yards got the victory, as Georgia held Florida to just 21 yards on the ground. Notably, the Gators had negative yards rushing until their long fourth-quarter scoring drive.
The Bulldogs outgained the Gators, 398 yards to 278, on Saturday. Florida came into the game averaging 400 yards of offense a game, so it was a good day overall for the Georgia defense, though they did give up a few explosive plays to Florida’s incredibly talented corps of receivers. Mostly, though, it was bend-but-don’t-break.
After Florida scored to make it 24-17 with 3:11 left, Georgia managed to kill the clock, despite getting off to an awful start with a delay of game penalty on the first play of the drive. The key was the 3rd-down pass to Wolf, thrown by Fromm under severe pressure.
Perhaps the biggest improvement for the Dawgs was in the play selection by Coley. Although that bunched-up formation that generally produces negligible yards up the middle did show up (with predictable results against the mighty Gators front), Coley generally called a smart game, ably mixing up the run and pass and rediscovering such past Georgia staples as the slant pass, the toss sweep (!) and even the wheel route (where Cager wound up so wide open for a touchdown that he practically could have walked across the goal for the score). Georgia dominated time of possession in three of the four quarters, with the the fourth quarter basically split (though the Gators took so long on a scoring drive that ate up nearly 7 minutes that they basically allowed Georgia to kill the clock).
The coaching and communication errors that plagued Florida throughout the game and resulted in unnecessary timeouts (and a Dan Mullen on-camera tantrum), were mostly absent on the Georgia sideline, thankfully.
However, there’s still room for improvement. The game shouldn’t have been as close as it was. A beautiful 37-yard touchdown run by Swift was called back due to a holding call on receiver Matt Landers (who also had a pass hit off his fingertips during the game), and, while the Bulldogs finished 4-for-4 in the red zone, they had to resort to too many field goals.
As Smart said after the game, “That was a hard-earned win against a good football team. Credit goes to these kids who played hard and played with grit. So many people doubted, and they never did. I am just happy for these guys in that locker room.”
But, the Georgia head coach added, “We have not arrived. We have to get better. We’ve got a lot of things we need to work on.”
In the end, though, it was an impressive win for Georgia, who now is 4-3 all-time against the Gators when both teams are ranked in the Top 10. This was the second straight year it was a Top 10 matchup, and Georgia again came out on top.
As another friend noted after the game, “Remember when all we wanted for Christmas was a win over the Gators?” Now, Georgia has three in a row and once again controls its own destiny in the SEC East.
All in all, a fine night to be a Georgia Bulldog. As my brother Tim texted right after the game, “I love beating the Gators!!!”