For one quarter and some change in Georgia’s 44-28 loss to Florida, the Bulldogs excelled at responding. Early on, each time Florida threatened to pull away, the Bulldogs found a way to break their slide.
“We’ve got complete trust in the offense, and we’ve got complete trust in our defense,” junior defensive back Eric Stokes said in a virtual postgame press conference. “We never had our head down, none of that stuff. We just kept looking on like, ‘Come on man, come on man… We can be back in this at pretty much any moment.’”
Opening with a one-play, one-touchdown start that predicted a tight contest, Georgia followed up by taking advantage of a Florida punt to jump ahead 14-0. Then, they waited for Florida’s offensive onslaught to take shape. It arrived on schedule.
The Gators cut Georgia’s lead by half with a seven-play, 75-yard drive that included a 39-yard pass and three runs for an average of seven yards apiece. But Georgia didn’t roll over. Sophomore wide receiver Kearis Jackson responded with a 56-yard kickoff return to give Georgia its best starting field position of the game. It didn’t pan out, and the drive ended with the first of Georgia’s seven punts in the game.
“We missed a lot of opportunities,” head coach Kirby Smart said. “I felt like we missed a lot of open shots. And that’s the toughest thing.”
Florida tied the game on its next possession, once more eating up chunks of yardage and finding a consistent advance against Georgia’s defense. Georgia suffered another three and out. With the ball back in Florida quarterback Kyle Trask’s hands and the momentum becoming audible on Florida’s orange-clad side of TIAA Bank Stadium, junior defensive back Eric Stokes responded.
Trask tried to sneak in a pass to one of two receivers running parallel curl routes near the sideline. Stokes saw the error immediately, jumping from his mark into the neighboring pass lane to come up with his third interception and second pick-six of the season. Georgia had again taken the lead, but it was the last time the Bulldogs would generate a game-managing stop of Florida’s relentless attack.
The Gators scored on each of their next five possessions, the most costly of which came in the final moments of the first half.
With just under two minutes to go, Florida had run up a 31-21 lead. The game hadn’t been fully busted open yet, and Georgia looked get within a score before the break. Smart said he relied on quarterback Stetson Bennett’s passing to try to move downfield, a "catch-22," because it could also leave Florida with some time on the clock. Bennett went 0-for-3, setting up yet another punt.
Up to then, Georgia punter Jake Camarda had averaged 51.5 yards on four kicks, landing three inside the Florida 20 yard line and demolishing a 63-yard boot on the previous possession that put the Gators on their own five.
“I’m counting on what I think is the best punter in America to take care of me and hit a bomb,” Smart said. “And he didn’t hit a bomb.”
With Georgia hoping to minimize its first-half damage and regroup in the locker room, Camarda shanked his punt out of bounds 23 yards downfield. Georgia had given Trask and the Gators 39 seconds to go 48 yards. They did it in four plays and 28 seconds, running up a 17-point lead.
Despite Georgia's five consecutive punts to close out the half and 75 total passing yards, Jackson said the offense wasn't completely deflated.
“We knew that it was the second half, another thirty minutes of football,” Jackson said. “[We were] going to go out there and respond to the touchdown.”
Georgia never surmounted the deficit. Its defense played better, holding Florida to two field goals in the final two frames, but backup quarterback D’Wan Mathis’ touchdown connection with Jackson at the end of the third quarter wasn’t enough to build energy in Georgia’s favor.
Smart said the Bulldogs typically manage the half well — they’re usually the ones squeezing in a quick seven points. Tonight, their inability to extend drives and their halftime mishap put both the game and the current top spot in the SEC East out of reach.