Bulldogs exorcise ghosts, Gators

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The here-we-go-again feeling enveloped EverBank Field throughout the first quarter of Saturday's Georgia-Florida game.

And yet somehow, Georgia's players didn't give in to that sense of dread that has settled into most of their fans' psyches after 20 years of implosions against their most-hated rival.

Even when the Bulldogs fell behind by two touchdowns early -- a deficit that could have been much worse and a scenario that has produced numerous blowout losses for the Bulldogs through the years -- they didn't fold this time.

Georgia (6-2, 5-1 SEC) rallied back for a 24-20 win by making the plays the Gators (4-4, 2-4) typically make in this series, stayed in the middle of the SEC East race and delivered one of the biggest wins in Mark Richt's 11 years as the Bulldogs' coach.

"You've just got to give credit to Coach Richt and our players for buying in and believing," Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. "You lose the first two and people start to question you, the program, the coaches, but these guys believed in each other, they believed in us, and that's what makes it so special.

"Then you win five in a row and you haven't played anybody. We just keep believing that we are a good football team. If we'll keep taking coaching, if we'll keep fighting for each other, we're going to have a chance to win every football game."

Georgia receivers Michael Bennett and Tavarres King both made leaping fourth-down touchdown catches. The Bulldogs sacked Gators quarterback John Brantley six times -- four by Jarvis Jones, who also forced a fumble that led to a touchdown. Alec Ogletree shook off the rust from a six-game layoff by forcing a fumble at the Gators' 25-yard line that led to another touchdown drive.

The Bulldogs overcame a 72-yard catch by Jeff Demps in the first quarter, kept the Gators from scoring on that drive and bounced back from more horrendous play from a special teams unit that Richt later described as "average to scary."

Demps returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown, Blair Walsh missed a pair of field goals, and Drew Butler averaged only 34.2 yards per punt, so it's fair to wonder what the "average" part in Richt's assessment described. It was pretty much all scary.

"I don't know what we've accomplished to this point yet, really and truly, but we have found a way to win," Richt said. "And this game especially was by far our toughest test since the South Carolina game, and there were a lot of things we were battling besides the Gators -- some history and some old demons that we exorcised at least for one day."

Without question, it was a sloppy performance, but the Bulldogs overcame their mistakes to beat Florida for the first time since 2007 and only the fourth time since 1990.

The implications of the win were evident in the way Georgia's players stormed the stands after the game to celebrate with their fans and even shed a few tears.

"I've never done it," said senior cornerback Brandon Boykin, who completes his career with a 1-3 record against the Gators. "I've never left here victorious, so I'm going to savor this moment and enjoy every minute of it."

So what is it that separates this Georgia team from its many predecessors who folded when faced with a big deficit against Florida?

Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham touted the Bulldogs' improved mental toughness, and King agreed.

"We just kept our poise, really," King said. "Everybody knew that a big play was going to happen sooner or later and a big momentum shift was going to take place. That's what happened."

Said Ogletree: "It wasn't a feeling that everything was going wrong, we just knew we had a fight on our hands."

Whatever it was that helped Georgia bounce back, it unquestionably stabilized Richt's position as the head Bulldog.

There was no shortage of college football analysts who proclaimed this a must-win game for Georgia's coach, following last year's 6-7 record, this year's 0-2 start and a decade of trouble against Florida.

Bobo said the comeback was evidence that Richt's team has not quit on its coach.

"You just look at how the game started. We go down 17-3, and if his players don't believe in him and don't buy into what he's talking about, there's no chance with the history of this football game that we're going to win," Bobo said.

Richt said he referenced the St. Louis Cardinals, down to their last strike in Game 6 of the World Series on Thursday before rallying to win that game and Game 7 on Friday, in the locker room at halftime.

"Guys that don't quit have a chance," Richt said he reminded the team.

And then his team proved him right, earning a victory that is valuable in so many ways.

"There were a lot of defining moments that changed the course of this game," Richt said. "We can only hope that it will change the course of history as far as games down the road. But you've got to win one first, and we did that."

David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at davidchingespn@gmail.com.