It wasn’t the prettiest win Jim McElwain has ever coached himself to, but it may be the biggest. And once again Georgia’s SEC East Title hopes were sunk in the River City.
Just call it the World’s Largest Outdoor Turnover Party, and give McElwain credit for accomplishing something Will Muschamp seldom did: winning a big game. The man McElwain replaced was 1-3 against Georgia and 3-7 in games Urban Meyer once coined “special games,” which include Georgia, FSU and bowl games. And now, already way ahead of schedule in McElwain’s first year even before this year’s installment of the Florida-Georgia rivalry, he removed any doubts that may have somehow remained about him by engineering the Gators’ second consecutive romp of the Bulldogs- both of which have knocked Georgia out of contention for the SEC East title- and 20th win in the last 26 games in the rivalry.
To be totally honest, though, he didn’t really have to do a lot. Georgia pretty much took care of that.
Early on, it looked like the 2015 chapter of the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party would be one of the ugliest yet. Florida opened the contest with a decent drive that stalled and ended with a missed field goal from Austin Hardin, and the game deteriorated into a sloppy slugfest that was difficult to watch. Punts filled the sky for the remainder of the first quarter, until finally, Georgia gave Florida a gift. Bulldog QB Faton Bauta overthrew everybody and Marcus Maye slid in and picked it off at midfield. For a Georgia team that has a long history of turning the ball over against Florida, that was mere foreshadowing of what was to come.
Florida went nowhere after the Bauta interception, and punted. But then Georgia really started to self destruct. Reggie Davis, who earned the horns of the scapegoat for dropping a would be tying touchdown pass against Tennessee, added to his woes with a muff of Johnny Townsend’s punt. Not only that, but he made the fatal mistake of starting from his own ten yard line and then backing up rather than simply letting it go into the end zone. Florida’s Nick Washington recovered the muff in the end zone, and though the PAT was blocked, the Gators had more points as a result of that miscue than Georgia would get the rest of the game.
With both offenses struggling mightily, it seemed like the score would remain 6-0 Florida until the game ended. Georgia’s defense had quickly figured out that Florida liked to run play-action bootlegs with Treon Harris, so they started putting defenders outside the box to rush wide and take that away. That was essentially the entirety of the Gators’ offensive game plan that didn’t include simply handing off to Kelvin Taylor or Jordan Scarlett. And even when Harris did have time to throw, he was, overall, quite inaccurate; his stat line of 8-19 with 155 yards doesn’t even reflect the off target throws that his receivers bailed him out on by making nice grabs.
So it came as nothing less than a complete shock when he rolled to his left and lofted a beautiful- and by beautiful, I mean perfectly thrown- pass down the sideline to Antonio Callaway for a 66 yard touchdown. This was due in large part to safety Jonathan Abram biting on a subtle head fake from Callaway, who then freed himself up on a wheel route and got his name in the scoring column.
But Mark Richt’s club wasn’t done giving out treats for Halloween quite yet. Kolton Houston forgot that you’re supposed to block defensive ends who wear colors different than your own. Alex McCalister flew in and leveled Bauta as he was about to throw the ball, which instead floated right to Vernon Hargreaves. VH3 gladly snatched it out of the air and returned it inside the five. Two plays later, Kelvin Taylor punched it in and Florida had an insurmountable 20-0 halftime lead.
There was the briefest, faintest, slightest glimmer of hope when Georgia recovered a Treon Harris fumble and got a field goal out of it, and then drove inside the Florida five early in the fourth quarter, but Jalen Tabor snuffed the threat by jumping in front of Bauta’s second down pass and backhanding it with his fist to Keanu Neal for the interception. And with that interception with ten minutes left in the game, that was it. End of threat. End of game. End of Georgia’s season.
But it still wasn’t the end of Florida’s fun. Freshman Jordan Scarlett got his moment in the sun in the Florida-Georgia rivalry by breaking off a 60 yard run to put the Gators in position to run up the score in a subtle sort of way, which Kelvin Taylor was more than happy to do with his second score of the game. Bauta then capped the Dawgs’ turnover filled game with his fourth interception, at which point McElwain had had enough and shut it down. That was fine; Florida had long ago made its point. Georgia finished the day with five turnovers, and Florida turned three of them into touchdowns. Combine that with the fact that Georgia’s offense couldn’t get themselves any points when they weren’t too busy getting Florida some points and it all adds up to a 27-3 thumping.
And suddenly, the Gators find themselves in complete control of the SEC East. Mathematically speaking, Florida needs to beat either Vanderbilt or South Carolina- possibly the two worst teams in the SEC- to clinch the SEC East outright. Or in even simpler terms, Florida is now one win away from booking their first trip to the SEC Championship Game in six years.
That would be some feat given where this program was two years ago.
The ugly 4-8 season that had many clamoring for Muschamp’s head has suddenly become a distant memory, yet it was just the season before last. Florida’s offense could never really get out of its own way throughout Muschamp’s tenure, and self inflicted wounds (specifically turnovers and penalties) directly led to their demise on numerous occasions. It got so bad that Florida lost to Vanderbilt at home for the first time since World War II, and then hit an all time low point with a loss to Georgia Southern in the Swamp- which became the school’s first defeat to an FCS opponent. EVER.
Funny how a real coach can change things.
This team still has work to do, of course. I remain convinced that Treon Harris is remarkably gifted, yet he’s struggled to consistently show why I and many others believe that. His inaccuracy as a passer is, quite simply, something that needs to be addressed and fixed. He overthrew some receivers, underthrew others, and missed wide on still others. Then he failed to protect the ball on a run and fumbled. Also, don’t be fooled by Florida’s offense gaining 413 yards. 66 of them came on a complete bust by Georgia on the Callaway touchdown, and 107 more came on the Gators’ final two drives of the game when the Bulldogs’ defense had reached “screw this, we quit” mode. Harris was inaccurate, sure, but his receivers not named Callaway could work on their route running and getting open more to help out their quarterback. And Jarrad Davis dropping an interception- even though he did grab one later on- is disappointing, because it gave Georgia their only points of the game.
More important, though, is that we have this privilege of talking about getting better in time for the SEC Championship Game. No other team in the SEC East gets to enjoy that luxury. And then again: McElwain has proven that he deserves to be left alone to do his thing. He’s won more big games through the first two months of his tenure than Muschamp did throughout his four years at Florida. He took a program that was 11-14 over its last 25 games and turned it into the best team in its division. So I feel pretty confident that he’ll be able to fix the problems his team is still experiencing.
After all, he’s already done what he’s said he wanted to do in his first season: he’s restored the order.