JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The 2013 season is sort of where Saturday’s game was for a while for Florida.
First, the game: Florida’s annual clash here at EverBank Field against SEC East rival Georgia.
The Bulldogs won 23-20. That is all many Gators fans care about.
In fact, there are fans that probably didn’t find out until late Saturday night the game ended that close.
The Gators were down by 20 points before some of the tailgaters outside probably even started to look for their tickets so they could get inside before halftime.
Georgia rolled up 259 yards in the first quarter. The Bulldogs led 14-0 less than six minutes into the game, scoring on a 5-yard run by Todd Gurley and a 73-yard pass from Aaron Murray to Gurley, who did most of the work after taking a pass in the middle of the field with no Gators around.
“They were executing; we didn’t,” Florida linebacker Michael Taylor said.
Twenty-three seconds into the second quarter, Georgia kicker Marshall Morgan’s 27-yard field goal made it 20-0.
At that point, the Gators seemed like a fish flopping on the riverbank trying to find its way back into the water.
They finally scored on Frankie Velez’s field goal in the second quarter and trailed 23-3 at halftime.
Some wrote them off for dead. Fortunately for the Gators, none of those folks had to go out and play in the second half.
“You never want to get down that much,” Gators quarterback Tyler Murphy said. “There have been greater comebacks — that’s what I had in the back of my head. There was no doubt at halftime that we wanted to come back out and make a game of it.”
The momentum began to shift as Florida limited the Bulldogs to 81 yards in the second and third quarters.
Mack Brown’s 5-yard run trimmed the lead to 23-10, a drive that started when defensive tackle Leon Orr made a heads-up play to recover a lateral to give the Gators possession at Georgia’s 14-yard line.
Near the end of the third quarter, Loucheiz Purifoy raced untouched into the end zone to sack Murray for a safety. The Gators were within nine (23-12).
“In the second half, we executed, and they didn’t,” Taylor said. “We showed a lot of fight out there. We knew we could play a lot better than we were playing. It’s a disappointment that we couldn’t pull it out.”
It was Murphy who brought the Gators to within a field goal early in the fourth quarter, running 39 yards on two plays, the second a 14-yard touchdown scamper. Murphy then hit tight end Clay Burton on a two-point conversion.
Finally, this one felt like a Florida-Georgia game is supposed to.
“I wanted this win,” Georgia linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. “I hate losing to Florida.”
With momentum still on Florida’s side, a dramatic shift occurred on Georgia’s first drive of the fourth quarter. Florida stopped Gurley short of a first down on fourth-and-1 from the Bulldogs’ 39.
However, Gators linebacker Neiron Ball was penalized 15 yards when he removed his helmet after making the tackle. Instead of starting the drive inside Georgia territory, the Gators took over at their own 46.
They advanced to Georgia’s 41 before going backward and punting.
On came Murray, who ran off the final 8 minutes, 17 seconds with a 15-play, 67-yard drive.
Now, the 2013 season: Florida dropped its third consecutive game, falling to 4-4, 3-3 in the conference. The loss was also the Gators’ third straight setback against Georgia, something that had not happened in this bitter rivalry since 1987-89.
Gators head coach Will Muschamp, now 0-3 against his alma mater, was asked what the Gators would rally around in the final month of the season.
The loss dropped them out of contention for the SEC East title and kept Georgia’s hopes alive.
“The fact you play at the University of Florida,” Muschamp said. “It’s a great place to play football and you’ve got a very close locker room. Guys play for each other. That’s a lot for those guys.
“They understand that. It’s frustrating, and they’re down and they’re hurt, but at the end of the day the guys got a lot of pride and they are competitors.”
A promising season has been derailed. With four regular-season games remaining, the Gators host Vanderbilt on homecoming Saturday in their first home game in a month.
They need at least two wins in their final four games to become bowl eligible. Florida’s 33-year streak of winning seasons also hangs in the balance.
Muschamp expects the Gators to respond the way they did in the second half against Georgia.
“I’m very proud of our players and the effort, their intensity, their fight, their resolve to battle back,” Muschamp said. “We dug ourselves in too big a hole, especially the big plays on defense early in the game.
“They’re upset, they’re hurt. We’ll rebound and we’ll be fine.”
The players rallied around each other at halftime as the scoreboard flashed a 20-point deficit outside.
They nearly pulled off the comeback.
Now they want to save their season.
“We’re just going to keep fighting,” Murphy said. “We’ll try to knock everybody off.”
Taylor, one of the Gators’ vocal leaders, was asked about his frustration level. He said there are no words to describe it.
It’s back to work. There isn’t much to say until the Gators can win again.
“As long as you’ve got a game on the schedule, you go out there and play your best,” Taylor said. “You don’t take a day off.”