ATLANTA — Georgia was searching for a way to resuscitate its season following back-to-back losses to Missouri and Vanderbilt.
The Bulldogs found what they were looking for against Florida.
Coach Mark Richt said Saturday’s 23-20 victory over the Gators allowed his Bulldogs to reclaim a positive outlook on the season.
“I guess the biggest thing is we can think about what can be instead of what could have been,” Richt said Sunday. “It just makes it easier to motivate and easier to get up and get going.”
The win kept Georgia (5-3, 4-2) in contention in the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division. Georgia plays Appalachian State on Saturday before closing out its conference schedule with games against No. 7 Auburn and Kentucky.
Georgia, which plummeted out of the Top 25 from No. 7 with the two losses, remained unranked on Sunday but has reason for renewed optimism.
“It keeps us in the race,” Richt said. “It’s so important for us to be in the race. It’s just easier to get up and go to work the next day. It’s tougher to fight through a three-game losing streak. It’s rough.”
The Bulldogs’ win was stressful. Georgia led 23-3 at the half before holding the ball on a final drive that lasted more than 8 minutes to preserve the win.
“The bottom line was enough good things happened in the first half that when things started to get away from us in the second half, we had enough to hang on,” Richt said.
A Georgia turnover helped spark Florida’s comeback. Tight end Arthur Lynch couldn’t catch a lateral from Aaron Murray in the third quarter and then didn’t fall on the loose ball. Florida’s Leon Orr returned the ball to the 14-yard line, setting up a two-play touchdown drive that cut Georgia’s lead to 23-10.
Richt said it was another in a series of what he called “self-inflicted wounds.”
“I’ve used that term more than I’d like to this season,” he said. “A high snap, a dropped snap, a dropped punt, a dropped ball that ends up being a lateral. ... You’re not foolish enough to think nothing bad could ever happen, but you’d like to make people earn it at least.
“The initial touchdown was one that we gave them tremendous field position. We gave them reason to be excited, their players, their fans, their coaches. It’s just tough to hold people off once they get their blood pumping again.”
Georgia tailback Todd Gurley scored two touchdowns in his return after missing three games with a sprained left ankle. Gurley had 17 carries for 100 yards, including a 5-yard touchdown run. He also scored on a 73-yard reception.
Receiver Michael Bennett, who had arthroscopic knee surgery on Oct. 8, returned to lead the Bulldogs with five catches for 59 yards.
Gurley went to the locker room during the game when he was nauseated, but he returned. Richt said he hadn’t received an update from his medical staff on how Gurley’s ankle held up to his first game since Sept. 28.
Georgia has won three straight over Florida for the first time since 1987-89 under coaches Vince Dooley and Ray Goff.
“This game means a lot to me,” defensive tackle Garrison Smith said after setting career highs with nine tackles and 2« sacks. “I just wanted to give my all and play as hard as I could. I’m in tears right now. This game means that much to me. I ain’t cried in a long time. These are tears of passion for this game.”
Murray improved to 3-1 against Florida. The last Georgia quarterback to win three games against Florida was Buck Belue from 1979-81.
“It’s awesome,” Murray said. “You always say ‘Every game is the same.’ But this one is different. There’s a different feel to it. The atmosphere is different. To go out and beat these guys three years in a row, which hasn’t happened in 24 years, is just an awesome feeling.”