- Mike DiRocco, ESPN Staff Writer
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Florida has been able to win games and become a national championship contender despite not having an explosive offense.
The Gators have been able to overcome that by playing suffocating defense, being outstanding on special teams and dominating field position. It's not pretty or exciting, but it had them on the verge of an SEC Eastern Division title.
That's when the offense blew the Gators' season apart.
Florida turned the ball over six times, including on a fumble on a potential game-tying touchdown late in the fourth quarter, and lost to rival Georgia 17-9 in front of 86,644 at EverBank Field. That's two more turnovers than the second-ranked Gators (7-1, 6-1 SEC) had in their previous seven games.
"I've said all season long we're not a team that has a lot of margin of error," UF coach Will Muschamp said. "Six turnovers. Wow. That's tough to overcome.
"... We're just not quite there explosive enough offensively to overcome six turnovers at the end of the day."
Quarterback Jeff Driskel accounted for four of those turnovers (two turnovers, two fumbles) and running back Trey Burton had a fumble through three quarters. But despite those mistakes, the Gators still had a chance to tie the game late in the fourth quarter, until Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones knocked the ball out of tight end Jordan Reed's hands as Reed was attempting to leap into the end zone.
That sealed the first back-to-back victories by Georgia (7-1, 5-1) in the series since the Bulldogs won three in a row from 1987-89. It also exposed a glaring weakness in Florida's offense: The passing game is limited.
The Gators lost the game because of the turnovers, but that was a fluke, an anomaly. UF entered the game plus-11 in turnover margin and had turned the ball over just four times before Saturday. What happened against the Bulldogs was a perfect storm of ineptitude that was so out of character for Muschamp's team.
But what it also helped expose is that the Gators struggle to make plays in the passing game. Opponents have figured that out and are making it a priority to stop UF's ground game by putting extra defenders in the box and concentrating on stopping running back Mike Gillislee.
Vanderbilt did it two weeks ago, limiting Gillislee to 67 yards on 17 carries, but the Commodores didn't have an answer for Driskel, who ran for 177 yards and three scores. South Carolina did it last week, stuffing Gillislee for 37 yards on 19 carries, but the Gators won because they took advantage of four turnovers.
Georgia did it on Saturday. Gillislee had 77 yards on 22 carries and UF managed just 81 yards rushing -- 132 yards below its season average. So the game fell on Driskel's shoulders, and the Gators couldn't get it done.
Driskel completed 14 of 26 passes for 185 yards, but he threw two costly interceptions, including one in the end zone at the end of the first half that kept the Gators from kicking an easy field goal. The offensive line struggled in pass protection, giving up five sacks -- including three by Jones, who forced one of Driskel's two fumbles.
Driskel also didn't get any help from the receivers. Reed is the only player who can consistently get open. Quinton Dunbar was the only wide receiver to catch a pass on Saturday -- and he also had a drop.
"You can't put everything on Jeff Driskel," Muschamp said. "You've got to be able to run the ball and you've got to be able to create vertical plays and stretch people out and not let people load the box. Again, that's something we've been able to overcome for the most part throughout the way we've played when we take care of the ball and play field position and we don't put ourselves at risk in some situations.
"The formula we've needed to have happen against good football teams we've done to this point, we didn't today."
The Gators had better fix the formula pretty quickly. The division race is not yet lost -- the Gators need to beat Missouri on Saturday and have Georgia lose one of its remaining games to Ole Miss or Auburn to claim the title -- but it will be if the passing game doesn't improve. The Tigers and Florida State will load the box and dare the Gators to throw the ball, and UF has to find a way to get that done.
But it's also a personnel issue. The offensive line has played well enough, but the Gators don't have a big-play receiver, and losing Solomon Patton to a broken left arm makes them even thinner at the position. Regardless, the Gators have to start making plays in the passing game or the offense will continue to struggle.
"They were definitely loading the box and they were going to stop Mike tonight, and they made us make plays in the passing game and we didn't make as many as we would have liked to," Driskel said. "Quicker decisions [and] seeing the defense better [will help]. It just comes down to making more plays."
2hEthan Sherwood Strauss