JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – There are play-scripts, there are signals that come in from the sideline and there are checks to be made at the line of scrimmage. But sometimes football comes down to one guy looking in a teammate’s eyes and telling him, “Here’s what we need to do.”
That’s what happened on Georgia’s last drive of the first half Saturday against Florida, and it was a doozy. At the end of it, the Bulldogs came away with only a field goal and a skinny six-point lead. But it was the how and the when and the who that made this an extra-special drive in the middle of Georgia’s 36-17 win over the Gators.
The who was Georgia tight end Isaac Nauta and quarterback Jake Fromm. The how and when was four straight passes between them to put the Bulldogs in scoring range in a 35-second span.
It all started with Nauta coming up to Fromm during a stoppage of play and saying: “It’s there, go ahead and throw it.”
The situation at the time was Georgia leading 10-7 with only 50 seconds remaining in the half. On the sidelines, the coaches were debating whether or not to try to score on their last possession of the half or just bleed the clock and take their lead into the locker room.
Georgia, after a considerable amount of deliberation by the referees over whether or not a Florida punt had hit a camera guide wire – it had – the Bulldogs were left with 50 seconds and two timeouts to negotiate the 75 yards in front of them.
The Bulldogs liked those numbers with Fromm at the controls.
“We wanted the ability to run the ball whenever we wanted to on that drive,” coach Kirby Smart said. “It makes the defensive coordinator play completely different when he knows you can run the ball. He can’t do some of the pass-rush stuff he likes to do.”
Georgia ended up not running the ball at all. But that threat of doing it created some opportunities for them.
Enter Nauta, the former 5-star recruit and sometimes under-utilized pass catching tight end, many might say.
Nauta knew he was going to have a linebacker on him, and he knew he could win that matchup, so he told Fromm as much. So after a play-action fake, Fromm rose up and hit Nauta in stride on the sideline. The 6-foot-4, 240-pound athlete hauled in the pass and turned up field for a 27-yard gain.
Hustling to line back up, Nauta and Fromm locked eyes and nodded to each other again. This action would repeat itself four times, as Nauta excitedly summed up in the immediate aftermath of the game.
“Sure enough, he threw it, we ran it again; he threw it, we ran it again,” Nauta said, his eyes dancing as he recounted it. “We switched it up and he hit me over the middle; and then he hit me again on the sideline.”
In just 35 seconds, the Bulldogs suddenly found themselves at the Florida 14, well within Rodrigo Blankenship’s field-goal range. But now they were thinking about getting in the end zone.
Ultimately, Georgia would get all the way to just inside the Florida 5-yard line with 6 seconds to spare. But after lining up to run one more play, Florida called a timeout. During the break, Kirby Smart decided not to chance the clock running out on them and sent in Blankenship to kick the chip-shot field goal.
Blankenship did that and the Bulldogs took a small lead and a modicum of momentum into the locker room. But also a bit of disappointment.
“That last decision … we have a couple of plays we feel like we can get off in less than 6 seconds to take a look,” Smart said. “If you trust your quarterback, you do it. We’ve watched a lot of NFL tape on it but, at the end of the day, we decided to go in with the momentum and kick the field goal.
“It ended up in hindsight we go into the half with timeouts, which is never good. So, we probably should have burned it and used it. But …”
Said Nauta: “It was huge to be able to make those plays for us and be able to get some points before halftime. And Jake did a great job.”
Those points would later get lost as the Bulldogs closed strong and expanded their lead in the fourth quarter. But at the time – and after Florida scored on its opening drive of the second half – they seemed huge, and they were.
It also did wonders for a Georgia offense that had lost a lot of confidence in the loss to LSU two weeks ago.
“It just felt like a really physical football game and it was back and forth for a little while,” said Fromm, who finished with 240 yards passing and 3 touchdowns. “It felt like everything we got today was earned. When that happens it’s a really good feeling for everybody. I thought everybody played pretty well collectively.”
Nauta did especially. The junior finished with a game-high 5 catches for 73 yards and had a good day blocking as well.
“Jake did a great job, the O-line did a great job, everybody did a good job,” Nauta said. “It’s always nice when you can throw a 7- or 8-yard ball and turn it into 15 yards. So it was just a great job by everybody on that drive.”
Nauta wasn’t interested in talking about his personal accomplishments on Saturday. For him, this was a special team victory.
“There’s a lot of emotion in a game like this,” he said. “I hate Florida, just to be honest. So it’s great just to come out on top. But it was such a big game. This game goes back forever and there have been a lot of great players and teams that have been in it. There’s a reason why so many people travel to this game and want to be a part of it. I’m just so happy we got the win.”
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