JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Well after Aaron Murray’s final kneel-down and Florida fans had cleared their side of EverBank Field, Mark Richt tried to absorb every moment he could before such a special night had to end.
He spent nearly 15 minutes on the field, clapping and cheering as he hiked from midfield to both end zones to acknowledge the handful of Georgia fans who stuck around to celebrate into the night.
He was ready to put them on his back and carry them to The Landing, but he would have had to make room for his defense first. The unit deserved a real victory lap.
After hearing the word “soft” basically become synonymous with Georgia’s defense, the Bulldog defenders put Georgia directly into the SEC Eastern Division driver’s seat with a dominating performance against a Florida team that had prided itself on pounding opponents with its running game.
All that soft talk quickly vanished after the Bulldogs repeatedly left the Gators’ offense in reverse and forced six turnovers in Georgia’s 17-9 victory. The defense felt disrespected this week and was out to prove that it was ready to do all the pushing Saturday.
“As a man, you’re going to take the personally,” linebacker Jarvis Jones said of Georgia’s defense being labeled as soft. “I took it personally, they took it personally. We came out here to show everybody that we have a great defense and we can execute and be one of those teams leading the nation in defense.”
This all started with senior safety Shawn Williams calling the defense’s play soft after that lackluster win over Kentucky. He was right, and every talking head on just about every sports platform backed him up and expanded on Georgia’s softness.
It was hard not to after the defense’s recent performances. It was gutted for 478 yards and 37 points against Tennessee, and South Carolina punched it in the mouth; it didn’t respond and Kentucky, which hadn’t done much of anything right on offense all season, ran for 206 yards on the Dawgs.
“Shawn said what everybody else was already saying,” Richt said. “It bothered them enough to get after it.”
All that soft chatter obviously struck the right nerve, because Georgia’s defense came out inspired from the jump, as every hit looked to be delivered harder, faster and more fiercely as the game continued.
With the offense stalling just about every time it got the ball, the defense had its back with crucial stops and by creating favorable field position. For the first time in a while, the defense carried the offense.
Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel was either running for his life or being drilled into the ground, mostly by Jones, who had a stellar performance with 13 tackles (12 solo), 4.5 tackles for loss and 3 sacks.
The only thing soft about Georgia’s defense was how Jones was constantly helping up the Florida players he left battered and bruised Saturday.
This team was challenged all week and basically counted out. Wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell knew people were jumping off Georgia’s bandwagon, and it motivated players.
“We knew that. We’re not clueless on what’s going on with the media,” said Mitchell, whose 45-yard touchdown reception gave Georgia its final points. “We knew most people were rooting against us, so we wanted to come out and show we could fight. We got the term ‘soft’ all week -- ESPN calling us soft -- so we just wanted to come out and show that we ain’t soft. We’re men just like they’re men. They weren’t born any different than us.”
They liked being looked down upon.
“I love it when people doubt us or are talking trash because it fuels me inside to play even better and shut them up and prove that we were a great defense, we know what we’re doing and we’re not soft,” linebacker Jordan Jenkins said.
The Gators couldn’t run (81 net yards) and really couldn’t move comfortably all day, averaging 3.9 yards per play. And when Florida found some sort of rhythm on its potential game-tying drive in the fourth, Jones was there to steal its thunder with a sneaky forced fumble on Jordan Reed before he attempted to hurdle into the end zone.
“I think they call it 'violators,'" Jones said with a smile. “He was a violator, so I went after it.”
Now, everyone is back to going after the Bulldogs. Wins over Ole Miss and Auburn will send Georgia back to Atlanta for the second consecutive year. We were ready to hand the East to the Gators, and now it’s the Bulldogs’ to lose.
They can thank their defense for that.
“That defense you saw tonight is the defense we’ll be for the rest of the season,” Jenkins said.