Jarvis Jones’ shoulders carry the weight of a program, the burden of which varies from game to game, from spotlight to spotlight.
Sometimes, it’s an unbearable task. When Georgia fell to South Carolina earlier this month, Jones was a relative non-factor. He was banged up. His team was overmatched.
But there are other times, special instances in the vast landscape of college football, where one imposing linebacker stands above the competition. The other 21 players on the field all but disappear, serving only as character actors to move the game’s plot forward. There is but one star; the nation takes notice.
The latest renewal of the Georgia-Florida rivalry was such a time for Jones.
The redshirt junior linebacker, the same one who was once told by Southern Cal doctors he would never play football again due to a neck injury, played the game as few defensive players have before in this annual clash. He sacked Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel three times. He forced two fumbles; he recovered two. It was the definition of dominance, propelling the Bulldogs to a 17-9 win to reclaim control of the SEC East division race.
Jones now has 8.5 sacks and five forced fumbles in 2012.
And yet, despite the outcome, Florida had a chance in this one, an opportunity to mount a comeback and prevent Georgia’s first win against a legitimate opponent — one that will finish the season in the AP poll — since 2009. Driskel, who had been horrid up until the fourth quarter, was suddenly driving the Gators. They reached the red zone. They reached the 5-yard line. They were just a touchdown and subsequent two-point conversions from wiping the slate clean.
But when tight end Jordan Reed was just 5 yards from becoming a potential hero, it was Jones who shattered his reality.
As Reed took to the air, Jones relieved Reed of his own burden — the ball. The fumble trickled into end zone, recovered by Georgia, and the final score was set. Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray took a knee to run out the clock, smiling like a winner for a change after facing a nationally respected opponent.
Of course, it should be noted that for the majority of Saturday afternoon’s affair, it was a back-and-forth battle of ineptitude between Murray and Driskel. Murray tied a career-high with three interceptions, all of them coming in the opening half. It was an early reminder of Murray’s past struggles against his program’s primary rival: 24 percent of his career interceptions have come in his three games in EverBank Field.
Not to be outdone, Driskel turned the ball over four times in the game (two interceptions, two fumbles). The Gators turned the ball over six times overall after coming into the game with just four such mishaps in their first seven games, tied for the second-best mark nationally.
That mark came before Jarvis Jones & Co. unleashed their frustrations on Florida’s offensive line, though.
Earlier this week, Georgia safety Shawn Williams voiced his concern that his defense was too “soft,” even going as far as to say perhaps it needed some sort of pay-for-play incentive for it to start living up to lofty expectations. In the diatribe, Williams also called out other teammates. Judging by opposing players’ grimaces and Driskel’s dirty uniform, the Bulldogs either took the words personally or to heart. Georgia held the Gators 131 rushing yards below their season average.
But the one player who never needed to hear words of encouragement — or disparagement — was the one who eventually carried his program to the winner’s circle once again, getting stronger and stronger as the clock wound down. Jones crossed off that necessity long ago. When healthy, he remains one of the premier defenders in college football, the most dominant Bulldogs’ defender in recent memory. His motor, seemingly, never stops.
Jarvis Jones carried his program to the very brink of its second-consecutive SEC East title Saturday evening, with games against Ole Miss and lowly Auburn being the only obstacles standing between Georgia and Atlanta. Of course, once there, the road gets much tougher. But that’s a burden Jones can take on if and when that time comes.
For now, he’ll rest. He’s earned it. Taking out BCS frontrunners is rugged work, and the limelight is scalding hot.
As Saturday’s result proved, though, that’s when Georgia’s All-American linebacker shines brightest.