With an opportunity to turn around a disappointing season and Florida cooperating Saturday afternoon in front of 84,572 fans in Alltel Stadium, the Bulldogs’ offense was simply too large a hurdle to overcome in a 21-14 loss.
“We came up short again, kind of same song, different verse,” said Coach Mark Richt, who fell to 1-5 against Florida. “We could have given up when the wheels looked like they were falling off there, but we didn’t, but the bottom line is we’re here to win and we did not win.”
The No. 9 Gators (7-1, 5-1 SEC) won for the 15th time in the last 17 games of this increasingly lop-sided rivalry despite missing two field goals, turning the ball over inside their 15-yard line and committing 10 penalties for 75 yards.
Georgia (6-3, 3-3) trumped those gaffes with five turnovers, including a Kregg Lumpkin fumble that was returned for a 9-yard touchdown by Gator defensive lineman Ray McDonald on the first play of the second half. The play put Florida up 21-0 and marked the fifth time this season the Bulldogs have turned the ball over on the first drive of the second half.
“In the final analysis, the turnovers are the main reason we find ourselves where we are,” Richt said. “You don’t win a lot of games doing that.”
Georgia almost won this one, though, rallying from that 21-0 third quarter deficit to pull within a score on an 8-yard Lumpkin touchdown run with 8:17 left. The Bulldogs had one more possession after that and would have had two if senior defensive end Quentin Moses had not been called for a 5-yard facemask penalty after stopping Andre Caldwell short on a third down play with 2:40 remaining.
Moses’ hand barely touched Caldwell’s facemask, and emotional defensive coordinator Willie Martinez was livid about the call.
“Let’s put it this way, we stopped them,” he said. “I’m going to leave it at that. I thought our defense played hard; I thought they played smart; I thought they played tough; I thought they got robbed a little bit on a couple things out there tonight. I can honestly say that.”
After Moses’ penalty resulted in a first down, Florida got one more to run out the clock.
“We had an opprotunity, and we didn’t cash in on it, and it’s just a shame,” Richt said. “It was a beautiful comeback in the making, and I would have loved to seen what would have happened in overtime if it had gotten to that point.”
Richt praised his defense, which held Florida to 2-of-12 on third down conversions after the Gators’ first drive, and took the bulk of the blame for the loss after his offense gained just 215 yards, its lowest total since gaining 203 against Clemson in 2002.
Until a Tony Taylor interception with 6:57 left in the third quarter sparked a rally, the Bulldogs had 106 yards of total offense, including just 16 rushing.
“We just got stuffed,” Richt said. “We just flat out got stuffed. It’s very disappointing, starting with me. The plan certainly wasn’t one that was getting people wide open. We didn’t run it well; we didn’t protect that well, and we didn’t throw it that well. That starts with me, putting the plan together with the staff. I just feel like I did a poor job.
Freshman quarterback Matthew Stafford threw two more interceptions and lost a fumble. He finished 13-of-33 for 151 yards and now has nine interceptions versus just three touchdowns on the season.
“I’m young, I guess,” Stafford said. “I know nobody likes to hear that excuse. I don’t like to hear it either. I don’t give myself an excuse. It’s something I have to learn from, and I’m trying to learn every week.”
Stafford didn’t get any help from an offensive line that, in Richt’s word, got “whipped.”
“They were stopping any kind of running game we had, which was something we needed to have,” Stafford said. “They were stuffing the run, and they weren’t bringing (any safeties) down to do it. They were stuffing it with their front seven.”
The Bulldogs had 81 first half yards and didn’t run a play in Gator territory until the 6:35 mark of the third quarter.
“As bleak as it looked, they did not quit,” Richt said of his players. “They had a lot of fight. They had a lot of heart and got it to a position where we were one drive away. We just couldn’t get it done.”
That fight did nothing to soothe the hurt feelings in Georgia’s post-game locker room.
“It’s going to sting for a little bit,” Stafford said. “I feel bad for the seniors, but I think we fought hard and showed some heart.”
Georgia has lost three of its last four games since starting the season 5-0 and plays Kentucky (4-4, 2-3) in Lexington on Saturday in the 10th game of a season in which there are no more guarantees.
“Kentucky is going to be excited about playing us,” Richt said. “They’ll certainly feel like they’ve got a wonderful opportunity to knock us off, and with good reason after watching what’s happened the last few ball games.”