JACKSONVILLE (AP) — Shawn Williams’ criticism will be remembered as a challenge.
And No. 12 Georgia responded better than anyone could have expected.
Five days after Williams ripped his defensive teammates for playing too soft, the Bulldogs turned in their best performance of the season — one that will go down in Florida-Georgia lore.
The Bulldogs stuffed the third-ranked Gators from every angle, forcing six turnovers in a 17-9 victory Saturday that left them on the cusp of the Southeastern Conference championship game.
Call it the World’s Largest Outdoor Turnover Party, and it gave Georgia consecutive wins in the heated rivalry for the first time since 1989. These have to be two of the more significant victories of coach Mark Richt’s tenure.
“I’d say we’re not soft,” Richt said. “The defense rose to the occasion. … Our seniors played well, and I know it’s a game they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.”
The victory, just the fifth in the last 23 meetings for Georgia, gave them a chance for even bigger accomplishments.
Slideshow: Bulldogs Take Down Gators
The Bulldogs (7-1, 5-1 SEC) can clinch the East and a spot in the conference title game with wins against Mississippi and Auburn the next two weeks.
If Georgia plays defense like it did against Florida — it was the first time since 1988 that UGA held the Gators without a touchdown — getting to Atlanta should be a mere formality.
“Shawn challenged us and we took it personal,” Jarvis Jones said. “As men, when another man challenges you, it will be personal. The guys stepped up to the challenge.”
The Bulldogs did little on offense until Aaron Murray found Malcolm Mitchell for a 45-yard touchdown with 7:11 remaining that put them ahead 17-9. Mitchell spun out of Loucheiz Purifoy’s tackle attempt and went mostly untouched the rest of the way. Florida kept the drive alive with Dominique Easley’s holding penalty on third down.
Georgia sealed it with — what else? — a defensive play.
Jones knocked the ball out of Jordan Reed’s hands at the 5-yard line, and teammate Sanders Commings recovered in the end zone with 2:05 left.
“When I saw him make the first guy miss, I thought he was going to score,” Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel said. “He didn’t take care of the ball, just like the whole team didn’t all night.”
Jones had another huge game against Florida (7-1, 6-1). The junior, who had four sacks in last year’s 24-20 victory, finished with 13 tackles, three sacks and two forced fumbles.
“I had a great game, but it’s about what we did as a defense,” Jones said. “All of us did what we came here to do. … It’s a great feeling.”
Williams’ harsh words didn’t go over well with coaches and teammates. He probably had a point after Georgia allowed at least 20 points in six of its first seven games and gave up 206 yards rushing last week at Kentucky.
Jones missed that game with a sprained ankle. With him back, Georgia looked like a different defense, and it surely helped that Florida self-destructed at every turn.
The Gators got behind early. Driskel fumbled twice on Florida’s first three plays. Georgia recovered the second one, which set up Todd Gurley’s 10-yard touchdown run.
Driskel, who completed 14 of 26 passes for 185 yards, lost another fumble, threw two interceptions and was sacked five times.
His first interception came at the end of the first half and with the Gators at the 5-yard line. Driskel rolled right on second down and threw across his body and into the end zone. Bacarri Rambo picked off the pass.
Driskel’s next drive ended the same way. Under heavy pressure, he floated one over the middle that Damian Swann intercepted. It set up a Georgia field goal that made it 10-6.
Wildcat quarterback Trey Burton fumble on the ensuing possession, but Marshall Morgan missed a 37-yard attempt.
“We’re capable of playing like this week in and week out,” Jones said. “We should have been playing like this all year.”
When the game was over, Richt and his players celebrated in every corner of EverBank Field.
“I wanted to stick around and enjoy it,” Richt said. “I wanted our players to enjoy it. When you have a game like that and you have the type of success we had, you want to celebrate. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. We definitely weren’t trying to taunt anyone. We were just trying to celebrate with our fans.”
Georgia had plenty of anxious moments before the party started.
The Gators intercepted three passes from Murray, who completed 12 of 24 passes for 150 yards, but managed just two field goals off those turnovers. Georgia also was flagged 14 times for 132 yards.
Florida made it 10-9 on Caleb Sturgis’ 50-yard field goal in the fourth, but Driskel’s mistakes proved to be too much to overcome.
The Gators, who turned the ball over just four times in their first seven games, had four in the first 36 minutes Saturday.
And with Mike Gillislee (77 yards) mostly bottled up, the Gators had no choice but to put the ball in Driskel’s hands.
“Six turnovers. Wow,” Florida coach Will Muschamp said. “That’s tough to overcome. We’ve got to find better ways to run the football, which we did in seven of eight games this year.”
Muschamp noted all season how small his team’s margin for error was. It really showed as the Gators got behind early and failed to make a comeback. The Gators had been 3-0 when trailing at halftime, but they didn’t make the same successful halftime adjustments that carried them in wins against Texas A&M, Tennessee and LSU.
“I think our guys were very serious about playing with intensity,” Richt said. “They played with physicality. They were accused of some things that guys don’t like to be accused of, and that probably helped motivate them.”
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