JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Mark Richt hardly seemed to be in a celebratory mood after Georgia's 23-20 win over Florida gave him three straight victories against the Gators for the first time since he became the Bulldogs' coach in 2001.
He had just watched the Bulldogs (5-3, 4-2 SEC) nearly melt down in the second half for the second consecutive game only to be saved by a late defensive stand and a clock-eating drive that ran out the remaining time in the fourth quarter. So perhaps it's understandable that Richt felt far more relieved than jubilant.
“It's because we're winning 23-3 ... and then we about lost the doggone thing,” Richt said. “That's why I'm subdued right now -- because I'm trying to get over it.”
Imagine how Will Muschamp felt. Florida's coach saw his team claw back from a 20-0 deficit at the start of the first quarter, pull within three points at the start of the fourth and then ruin its comeback bid with regrettable penalties at the end of the game.
The Gators (4-4, 3-3) would have gotten the ball back for one final possession, but defensive lineman Darious Cummings was flagged for a personal foul -- illegal hands to Georgia center David Andrews' face -- to spoil a third-down stop with barely more than a minute remaining. Despite four personal foul calls between the two sides, the resulting first down after Cummings' penalty allowed Georgia to run out the clock and earn its first three-game winning streak in the series since 1987-89.
“We did have Coach [Vince] Dooley come by and speak to our team this week,” Richt said, referring to the coach who led the UGA program from 1964-88. “That's one thing he mentioned. I didn't know the stat, but he said if we win, it would be the first time we got three in a row in like 30 years or something. I was frankly kind of embarrassed that was the truth. But that's where this series has gone. It's nice to at least, to this point, get it turned around a little bit.”
Richt has been on Muschamp's side of this rivalry, too, however. The early days of Richt's tenure saw Georgia blow numerous winnable games, including a 2002 loss that might have cost the Bulldogs a chance to play for the BCS championship. Richt was 2-8 against Florida until the Bulldogs launched their three-game winning streak in 2011, but perhaps now they have permanently removed the Florida monkey off the program's back.
“Three in a row's awesome,” said Georgia senior Aaron Murray, who threw for 258 yards and a touchdown and became just the third UGA quarterback since the 1940s to beat the Gators three times. “It's a great feeling and this is just such a great game. The environment's unbelievable. To be in that stadium, it's a true blessing. It's a great feeling to win three in a row -- something that hasn't happened in 24 years, and hopefully next year we'll keep it up.”
Saturday's win wasn't pretty by any means. In fact it was symptomatic of Georgia's season thus far, with self-inflicted wounds, costly penalties and general breakdowns combining to place what looked to be an easy victory in jeopardy. Coming off a 31-27 loss to Vanderbilt, where similar problems allowed the Commodores to close the game with a 17-0 run in the fourth quarter, Georgia had to feel as though it was experiencing deja vu against the Gators.
“We just shot ourselves in the foot. I've said that 100 times,” said Georgia receiver Michael Bennett, who had a team-high five catches for 59 yards. “It's just mental mistakes, I had a dropped pass. Stuff like that, you're going to end up having the other team start scoring points and giving them opportunities. You can't do that.”
Tailback Todd Gurley -- who scored Georgia's first two touchdowns and finished with 187 yards of total offense -- fell short on a fourth-down run at the Bulldogs' 39 in the fourth quarter, with Georgia clinging to a 23-20 lead.
Florida's Neiron Ball was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after stopping Gurley, however, pushing the Gators back 15 yards. Their ensuing drive pushed the ball to Georgia's 43 before Bulldogs defensive coordinator Todd Grantham sent a third-down blitz at Gators quarterback Tyler Murphy.
Safety Corey Moore tracked Murphy down in the backfield for a 14-yard loss, forcing a fourth-and-26 midway through the final period that removed even the possibility that Florida would go for it on fourth down.
“I thought it was the right time to do it,” Grantham said of the decision to blitz and leave his defensive backs vulnerable in one-on-one coverage. “We had to go end the game, and that's what we did.”
Georgia took over with 8:17 to play and drove 67 yards in 15 plays -- including a huge third-and-7 conversion pass for 7 yards from Murray to Rhett McGowan and the Cummings penalty that produced another key conversion -- running out the remaining time.
The loss drops Muschamp to 0-7 in the Florida-Georgia series -- 0-4 as a Georgia player and 0-3 as the Gators' coach -- which undoubtedly creates a lonesome feeling with which Richt can identify.
Richt's team somehow held on for a win on Saturday, however, although the Bulldogs' stumbling style of late seems to be taking a toll on their coach.
“They must like it,” Richt said of Georgia's numerous games that have been decided in the waning minutes. “I don't like it. It makes you wonder if this is really a good way to make a living.”