On the first play from scrimmage, Georgia running back Zamir White took the handoff, headed for the left sideline, met minimal resistance and raced past the Gators’ defense for a 75-yard touchdown. Florida’s offense went three-and-out on its first possession. Bulldogs quarterback Stetson Bennett then connected with Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint for a wide-open 32-yard scoring strike. Just like that, Georgia led 14-0 a little more than three minutes into the game.
Admit it: when Rosemy-Jacksaint crossed the goal line, you felt a sinking “Here we go again” feeling in your stomach. Nobody can blame you. In 2017, UF fell behind 21-0 less than halfway into the first quarter en route to a blowout loss that ended the Jim McElwain era. In each of Dan Mullen’s first two cracks at the Bulldogs, the Gators fell behind by 10 points in the first half. The Gators, however, never wavered or got rattled by the slow start.
“Our guys were kind of maybe a little shell-shocked coming out at that point with what was going on,” Mullen said. “We did a nice job settling down. Nobody panicked. Everyone was kind of like, ‘Whoa.’ But I think once we went down and got that first offensive touchdown, I think the attitude on our sideline changed and everybody kind of remembered, ‘Hey, you know what, we can play pretty good defense, getting 11 guys running to the ball as hard as we can. We can score points.’ I think everybody all of a sudden realized we’re fine, we’re going to be OK in this game.”
From that point, the No. 8 Gators outscored No. 5 Georgia 44-14 and defeated the Bulldogs 44-28 on Saturday night in Jacksonville. With the win, UF (4-1) now owns sole possession of first place in the SEC East and owns the tiebreaker over Georgia (4-2).
“We have such an explosive offense, such a great team, top-down,” quarterback Kyle Trask said. “We just had a lot of confidence, a lot of energy. We went down 14-nothing early, and this team had no panic. That kind of shows the character of this team. We're never going to get down and panic in any situation; we're always going to fight. Take one play at a time, and that's what we did.”
They had no reason to lose confidence. Not when they have a quarterback like Trask. In the latest chapter of his incredible story, Trask, the lowly high school backup, shredded Georgia’s army of five-star defensive talent. He completed 30 of 43 passes for 474 yards and four touchdowns against one of the stingiest defenses in the country. Those 474 yards are the most in a regular-season game in program history and the second-most in any game behind Tim Tebow’s 482 yards in the 2010 Sugar Bowl. He also became the first quarterback in SEC history to throw at least four touchdowns in five consecutive games. Florida’s 38 points in the first half were the most by the Gators in any half in series history.
With Trask’s performance, some have wondered if he might’ve catapulted himself to the top of the still-too-early Heisman Trophy list. The always humble Trask dodged that question after the game like Georgia’s defenders dodged covering the wheel route.
“[Breaking records] feels good, but at the same time, I know what that means,” he said. “I know that’s just a reflection of this offense, and it’s also a reflection of how hard and how well these coaches have been making game plans, getting us in the right situations, getting us in good matchups outside, receivers making plays and our O-Line blocking well.”
Mullen said he doesn’t get too caught up in postseason awards; that’s for the media and fans to debate. Still, he acknowledged that good things tend to happen to quarterbacks on winning teams. If they continue to win, the hype will inevitably continue to grow.
The Gators identified the Bulldogs’ struggles against wheel routes and exploited them numerous times throughout the game. Florida’s running backs combined for 10 receptions for 212 yards, with a large chunk of it coming on wheel routes. Reserve tight end Kemore Gamble caught his first career touchdown on a wheel route in the second quarter to give the Gators a 28-21 lead that they never surrendered.
“If Coach sees a matchup that he likes, he's going to attack it,” receiver Trevon Grimes said. “And that's what he does with all the players, he puts them in a position. So early in the game, we've seen that the wheel routes and all this stuff was working, and we just kept executing it, and it was a big role in gaining huge chunk yards plays. So, that helped us out a lot.”
Trask did a good job of going through his progressions and finding the open receiver, as 10 different players caught a pass, and four caught a touchdown. Only two players – Malik Davis and Kadarius Toney – caught more than three passes. This deep and talented group of skill-position players makes them almost impossible to defend when they execute correctly.
“He’s an accurate guy with the ball, and he’s a confident guy, and the guys believe in him,” Mullen said. “He’s not afraid. He doesn’t hone-in on one guy, takes what the defense gives us. He does a nice job doing that. You see that by all the different receivers that get catches.”
Trask’s night wasn’t without blemish, though. A miscommunication with freshman receiver Xzavier Henderson resulted in a pick-six in the second quarter, and Trask threw a pass right into the chest of UGA defensive back Mark Webb that should’ve been an easy pick-six in the fourth quarter. Instead, it fell harmlessly to the turf.
As a team in the second half, the Gators gained just 160 yards and scored just six points. They left the door wide open for the Bulldogs to make a comeback but held on thanks to horrendous play by Georgia’s two quarterbacks, Bennett and D’Wan Mathis.
The importance of this win can’t be overstated. Despite finishing in the top-10 and winning New Year’s Six bowls in each of Mullen’s first two seasons, Georgia was the one obstacle that kept Florida from maximizing as a program and competing for championships. With Saturday’s win, the Gators are the odds-on favorite to represent the East in the conference championship game. They’ll have to lose twice in their final five games to not win the East, and the toughest portion of the schedule is behind them.
“All year we've been waiting for this game, and to be able to come out here and do what we did, it's just a feeling that's indescribable, and we're going to cherish this until tomorrow, and then after tomorrow, we're going to get back to work,” Grimes said.
“I came back for a specific reason. That was to go on this national championship run. We know we had to get through Georgia first. That's what we just did. So, we're looking forward to facing our next opponent and going out there and playing in these high-level games.”
They wouldn’t admit it after the game, but the Gators took out three years’ worth of frustration and heartache on the Bulldogs. They’ll celebrate their achievement on Saturday night before turning their attention to the future on Sunday. That future looks a whole lot brighter than it did on Saturday morning.
"It means so much, having that losing streak that we had with them the past couple years,” Trask said. “It just means the world to this team to finally get over that hump and get a win against this very good and well-coached Georgia team. I can't be more proud of our guys right now.
“That’s our goal from the very beginning of the season is to get that national championship. That’s the goal for every team in America, I believe. This is all part of the plan. We’ve got to get this big-time win in Jacksonville, and we did that, so we’re just getting started now. We’ve just got to take it one game at a time. We have the power in our hands, and we’ve just got to execute and do our job, and we’ll be all right.”