ATHENS — Here’s all you need to know about Georgia’s game against Florida on Saturday: On third-and-a-half-yard at its own 34 late in the second quarter, the Bulldogs lined up in the shotgun and attempted a pass. Faton Bauta’s attempt for Terry Godwin was in the dirt. Georgia punted for the fourth time in the half. It trailed 20-0 at the time.
And so went the ballyhooed Bauta Era, which had begun to great fanfare earlier in the day.
Georgia finished the half with 94 yards offense and committed the catastrophic special-teams play for which it now has become so infamous. A large portion of the Bulldogs’ fans left EverBank Field at halftime, and the Gators went through the motions in the second half to secure the victory for their first-year coach, 27-3.
In summary, it was a bad day to be a Bulldog, and Bauta in particular. The seldom-used junior quarterback had four interceptions in his first career start. He was 15-of-33 passing for 154 yards and had four yards rushing.
“You have to learn to take some positives away from it,” said Bauta, who hadn’t recorded a rush or pass attempt this season before Saturday. “If you sit there and think you’re the worst player of all time, that’s not going to help you, that’s not going to take you where you want to go. It’s not good. Honestly, it was a bad start. But it’s a start.”
The defensive-minded Gators were licking their chops at the thought of facing the new quarterback.
“We wanted to get in his face fast, we wanted to keep him shaky,” defensive tackle Jon Bullard said. “He hasn’t played a lot and then you’re coming in playing against us – that’s a tough one.”
Georgia coaches declined to say how the quarterback situation would be handled going forward.
Meanwhile, the loss officially eliminated the Bulldogs (5-3, 3-3 SEC) from the SEC Eastern Division race and all but punched the Gators’ ticket to the Georgia Dome. No. 11 Florida (7-1, 5-1) needs only to beat Vanderbilt next week to make the SEC title game for the first time since 2009.
The Bulldogs are now playing for another second-tier bowl bid. The climate they play in will be determined by how they play the rest of the way against Kentucky, Auburn, Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech.
“I don’t really want to talk about feelings,” said senior Malcolm Mitchell, who led the Bulldogs with 60 yards on four catches. “It’s kind of known when you lose any game, let alone a rivalry game. How we feel emotionally is kind of common sense at this point. … As men we have to regroup and keep playing. We have more games.”
Georgia couldn’t even snatch away Florida’s momentum when outside linebacker Davin Bellamy caused and recovered a fumble on the Gators’ first possession of the second half. Taking over on the Florida 25, the Bulldogs managed 16 yards in six plays and settled for a 27-yard field goal — 20-3.
It might as well had been 100 to 3, based on the ineffectiveness of Georgia’s offense. The most curious aspect of the decision to bench Greyson Lambert in favor of Bauta at quarterback is how little the Bulldogs deviated from what they’ve been doing all year on that side of the ball. Though Bauta entered the game with a reputation for being the best runner among UGA quarterbacks, he finished with just three carries. As a team, the Bulldogs recorded a season low for rushing yards (69) and attempts (22).
Meanwhile, Bauta’s 33 pass attempts were right in line with the 32 Lambert had in each of the last two games. Asked to clarify in his postgame news conference, coach Mark Richt said Lambert was neither injured nor suspended.
“We got to a point we thought it was time to make a change,” Richt explained. “We thought Faton ought to get an opportunity. He’s a tough kid, a tough competitor. … We felt like he gave us the best chance this game.”
Incredibly, the Bulldogs had an opportunity to make a game of it late. They drove from their own 11 to first-and-goal at the Florida 3. But there, the inability to run the football bit them again. After a pass deflection on first down, Bauta rolled right and was pressured on second down. His pass for Mitchell was tipped by Jalen Tabor and intercepted by Keanu Neal in the end zone. Touchback, Gators.
It was Bauta’s third interception of the game. The biggest play of the game, and retrospectively, the winning play of the game, came after Bauta’s first interception on Georgia’s third possession of the game.
Florida failed to score on the ensuing possession. But getting the ball back required the Bulldogs to field a punt.
They failed to. Georgia’s Reggie Davis inexplicably attempted to field kick just inside the Bulldogs’ 5-yard line. The muff ended up rolling into the end zone, where it was recovered by Florida’s Nick Washington for a touchdown. Georgia’s Sterling Bailey blocked the point-after attempt, so the Gators had a 6-0 lead as the first quarter ended. But as it turned out, that would’ve stood up.
The Bulldogs’ other major gaffe came at the 5:06 mark of the second quarter. Under heavy pressure, Florida quarterback Treon Harris avoided the rush to hit Antonio Callaway deep down the left sideline for a 66-yard touchdown. Freshman Johnathan Abram — subbing for targeting-suspended Dominick Sanders — was attempting to defend on the play.
It all added up to one of the worst overall team performances of the Richt era. That is, since this same time last year. That’s when the heavily-favored Bulldogs gave up 418 yards rushing to lose to Florida 38-20.
And with the Gators winning for the second straight year and presumably heading to the Dome in their first season under Jim McElwain, the heat is turning up on Richt. And he knows it.
“It’s part of being in a leadership position,” Richt said. “If you are a leader in any way shape or form, you’re going to be criticized, in good times and bad times. That’s part of it. … Our jobs as head coaches are very, very public and very, very emotional, because you have so many people who care about their program.”