Shawn Williams made certain last week that the Florida game would be all about toughness. It was a fitting theme because Georgia’s willingness to match Florida’s toughness has had a lot to do with their success in Jacksonville recently. We all remember the Celebration in 2007, but that touchdown came after a drive of nothing but runs. Georgia showed right away its intent to run at Florida, and the Dawgs finished with 196 yards on the ground in their 2007 win. A year later Brandon Spikes crushed Knowshon Moreno just minutes into the game, and Georgia never rose to the challenge. Last season Georgia wasn’t able to get much going early on, but eventually the Dawgs found their toughness in the form of Richard Samuel whose strong runs up the middle first gave Georgia the lead and then sealed the win in the final seconds.
Even with Williams’ challenge to his teammates, Florida would be a test of any team’s toughness. The Gators have re-made themselves over the past two seasons and finally showed some results after a trying first season under Will Muschamp. Their formula for success isn’t complicated: they run well, play solid defense, and thrive on turnovers. They’re not a complete nor a flawless team, especially when they have to throw the ball, but their strengths and style figure to keep them in most any game.
We all have different things in mind when we say whether a team is soft or tough. To get past Florida, Georgia had to come at their lack of toughness in several ways:
Raw, brute strength. There are few tests of this toughness more visible than the running game. The Gators came into the game rushing for over 210 yards per game. The power running of senior tailback Mike Gillislee was augmented by the running threat of sophomore QB Jeff Driskel and an effective wildcat package. Seven Gators have at least ten carries this year, and Georgia would have to account for everyone from the quarterback to flankers in the running game.
On the other side, Georgia’s running game had all but stagnated. Made irrelevant by South Carolina’s early lead, the Georgia ground game that looked so potent in September was kept to a feeble 77 yards by Kentucky. The Dawgs averaged under 100 YPG on the ground in their first two October contests, and they were going up against one of the SEC’s top 3 defenses.
Georgia’s ability to flip the script in the running game is the biggest story from the game. Florida’s potent ground game was held to just 81 total yards – a paltry 2.0 YPC average. We saw how dangerous they could be in the fourth quarter when a Driskel keeper got enough yards to set up their final field goal and when Gillislee began gashing the Georgia defense on their final drive. But on the whole Georgia was tremendously effective stopping whatever Florida tried on the ground: the power game up the middle, the zone reads, the few wildcat attempts, and even the sweep that Shawn Williams shut down on Florida’s early fourth down attempt.
The Dawgs didn’t exactly rewrite the record book with their rushing offense, but Todd Gurley’s 118 yards were more than enough to outgain the entire Florida team, and he became the first back this year to break the century mark against Florida. His touchdown run was typical Gurley: great vision to cut back and then power to finish it off. Florida, as they’ve done so often this year, adjusted well to limit Gurley as the game wore on, but the freshman was able to seal the win much like Samuel did a year ago with a long run that allowed Georgia to end the game in the victory formation. It was a great job not only by Gurley but also the offensive line that led the way and kept Aaron Murray largely on his feet.
As Georgia found out in the 2011 SEC Championship, playing tough for one half isn’t enough to beat the conference’s best teams. Florida’s season-long ownership of the second half began in its first contest of the year at Texas A&M and had grown to near-mythical proportions by the time they went to Jacksonville. The Gators had been in close games, or even trailed, at halftime in five of their seven previous games. They won all but one game by at least eight points. With a halftime score of just 7-6, Florida seemed to be in a very familiar and comfortable position. From a similar spot they had held off Texas A&M, blew past Tennessee, and stymied LSU. There was no reason to think it would be different against Georgia.
Georgia wasn’t able to separate, but the Dawgs also didn’t wilt against a confident team used to dominating the second half. The defense maintained its pressure on Driskel, continued to force turnovers, and kept the Gators out of the end zone. Georgia’s offense didn’t take over, and their inability to cash in on several instances of great field position in the third quarter nearly cost them the game. The biggest difference for the Georgia offense was that Aaron Murray finally began to settle down. After poor decisions led to three interceptions in the first half, Georgia didn’t turn the ball over after intermission. With Florida’s defensive adjustments successfully limiting the running game, Georgia’s coaches put the game on Murray’s shoulders with a pass-heavy series midway through the fourth quarter.
Georgia’s defensive endurance was tested on Florida’s final possession, and Florida began to have success both running and passing. Jordan Reed in particular was able to find mismatches against Georgia’s linebackers, and a few completions opened things up for four straight runs that gained 30 yards. Jarvis Jones did many, many things in this game. His final play might have been his best: he started rushing the passer, recognized when it was time to bail on the rush, and chased down Florida’s top receiver from behind to force the game-saving fumble. That would have been remarkable enough in the first quarter, but to have the stamina to pull off that play late in the fourth quarter after playing nearly every snap of an intensely physical rivalry game is what toughness is all about.
Toughness and aggression without discipline is, as anyone who remembers the 1999 Auburn game can tell you, a disaster waiting to happen. Georgia’s results in this aspect of toughness were mixed. There was plenty of good. Murray was able to put aside his rough start and make big passing plays on Georgia’s last scoring drive. The defense was put in a tough spot several times by turnovers and special teams and never allowed more than a field goal. As heated as the game got, the defense rarely took themselves out of plays with overpursuit or losing contain. Someone, even (and especially) a freshman like Jordan Jenkins, was usually in position to spoil a misdirection or option play.
The entire team was able to get an early lead and fight tooth and nail to keep it by the slimmest of margins. Instead of letting Shawn Williams’ pointed and personal assessment tear the team apart, they accepted responsibility for the state of the team and did something about it.
But the team lived on the edge of controlling their emotions. You sensed trouble as soon as Georgia’s run out of the tunnel intersected Florida’s. Sure enough, it didn’t take long for the talk and pushing to start, and even some staff members got involved. That was harmless, but it set the tone for a chippy game on both sides. Whether most of what went on merited a flag is secondary. The refs were consistent and made it clear that they’d call it close in an attempt to keep the game under control.
If that’s what it takes to get Georgia to play an inspired game against the #2 team in the nation, so be it.
The challenge now is keeping it going without some sort of provocation from the opponent or a teammate. The challenge is making the attitude of the Florida game a permanent mindset regardless of the opponent. That will be an even bigger test of mental toughness than the Florida game was. Defenders should come to practice looking to “knock the $!@& out of someone” without the need for a personal kick in the pants. It has to be a lot more fun stuffing an offense, causing turnovers, and watching your highlights on ESPN than it is watching inferior opponents put up yards and points on you.
The other challenge is to refine this toughness and distinguish the productive actions from those that cost the team. Of course the offense and special teams are as culpable as anyone in this area. Resisting the natural urge to push or talk back is probably one of the greatest signs of mental toughness, not a sign of weakness. As Tavarres King showed, a wide grin and a walk 15 yards down the field as the other guy gets the flag does a lot more for the team. As good as the outcome was, imagine the possibilities for this group if they can maintain the attitude regardless of the opponent while avoiding the penalties and turnovers. If the Dawgs are able to advance to the SEC Championship again, they’ll very likely face a team that’s mastered doing just those things.