The No. 20 Bulldogs did neither Saturday. Georgia made an unprecedented statement when more than 50 of its players ran onto the field to celebrate its first score, and then backed up that bold move by beating the No. 9 Gators 42-30.
“If you do something like that, you have to stand up to it,” linebacker Marcus Washington said. “You can’t do something like that and then get rolled over.”
A Jacksonville Municipal Stadium crowd of 84,481 saw the first Georgia-Florida game in which both teams reached 30 points. The Bulldogs, who had their highest point total since 1982 in this rivalry, stopped a streak that had seen them lose 15 of the last 17.
Georgia head coach Mark Richt ordered the first quarter celebration, which resulted in two personal foul penalties, two weeks ago and was happy to see his team respond in the way he had hoped, he said.
“I told them when we score our first touchdown if we don’t get a celebration penalty, I’m going to run every one of y’all at 5:45 in the morning,” he said. “I said, ‘Men, we’ve got to have some passion, and if we have to create it we’re going to do it.’
“I wanted the guys to be in a frenzy.”
They were. Georgia was flagged for five personal fouls in the first quarter.
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“We just want to let the fans, the nation, the media, know, ‘Georgia is here,’” senior cornerback Thomas Flowers said. “We wanted to wake everybody up, and that’s what we did tonight. We woke everybody up. They know we were in Jacksonville tonight.”
The defending national champion Gators (5-3, 3-3) certainly won’t forget freshman tailback Knowshon Moreno for a long time. Moreno rushed for a career-high 188 yards and three touchdowns on a career-high 33 carries, and added two receptions for 17 yards.
“Knowshon ran it beautifully,” Richt said. “We were confident he could touch it 30-35 times. I’ve compared him to (David) Pollack in his energy and his spirit, and he hasn’t let us down.”
The victory pushed Georgia to 6-2 overall, 4-2 in the SEC, and right back into the middle of a particularly jumbled divisional race.
The Bulldogs played out of character on offense and defense all day long. The offense had its two longest passing touchdowns of the season, and the defense contributed six sacks, more than Florida had given up all season and as many as the Bulldogs have had in the last five games combined.
“I think putting the pressure on early got them out of their rhythm and got them thinking a little bit,” defensive coordinator Willie Martinez said.
Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, who was playing with a bruised non-throwing shoulder was held to a season-low minus-15 rushing yards on 13 carries and threw for just 236 yards.
“They had him on (ESPN’s College GameDay), and my roommate Thomas Flowers said, ‘Marc you have to go out there and get on Tebow,’” said defensive end Marcus Howard, who had two sacks. “I said, ‘I’m going to go do my thing.’”
The offense kept the pressure on by scoring touchdowns on five of its first 11 possessions. Junior Mohamed Massaquoi hauled in an 84-yard touchdown pass, the longest offensive scoring play by Georgia since 2003, to put the Bulldogs ahead 14-7 in the first quarter, and senior Mikey Henderson added a 53-yard catch to give his team a 35-24 lead early in the fourth quarter.
Georgia, which ran the ball 44 times on its 62 offensive plays, finished with 413 yards, its second-highest total of the season. Quarterback Matthew Stafford completed just 11 passes but hit for three touchdowns, not counting the one Florida cornerback Wondy Pierre-Louis intercepted and ran back 25 yards for a touchdown in the second quarterback.
The Florida offense got 97 yards rushing and 41 yards receiving from sophomore Percy Harvin, but the Gators finished with 343 yards, more than 100 below their season average.
The Bulldogs trailed for just five minutes and 23 seconds and never in the second half. They sealed the victory when linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, who had a team-high seven tackles, recovered a fumbled snap with 2:23 left at the Bulldogs’ 15-yard line.
“I felt like we needed to let our personality show,” defensive line coach Rodney Garner said.
“I felt like we were just starting to go through the motions, so it’s really good to see the guys go out there and play with emotion and play with excitement.”