JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Georgia coach Mark Richt took several steps toward midfield with his son draped around his neck. His players and assistant coaches were in the background, celebrating in the same end zone that caused such a stir during the Bulldogs’ last win against Florida.
This one was special.
And everyone knew it.
Richt may have saved his job with two gutsy, fourth-down calls that resulted in touchdowns, and No. 22 Georgia overcame several mistakes to beat Southeastern Conference rival Florida 24-20 Saturday.
"I know it was just a ballgame, but it seemed like a lot more than that," Richt said. "Just to see our players and fans celebrate, in this place especially, was awesome."
At the very least, Georgia kept pace with South Carolina in the Eastern Division. Maybe more important, Georgia picked up its fourth win in 22 tries against Florida. This one was huge for Richt, who had been under pressure since losing to Boise State and the Gamecocks to open the season.
The Bulldogs (6-2, 5-1 SEC) have now won six straight.
"I can say this now that it’s over, but this was more than just another game to win and to keep pace in the Eastern Division," Richt said. "You could see it with our guys, but we didn’t want to try to make it any bigger than it needed to be."
Richt shook hands with Florida coach Will Muschamp, then headed straight for the end zone to start dancing with his players. They screamed, shouted, hooted and hollered.
They eventually made their way to the locker room, where Richt had everyone sing "Rocky Top." The Bulldogs needed Tennessee to beat South Carolina later Saturday to take the lead in the East.
The Gators, meanwhile, trudged off the field with a fourth consecutive loss. It’s the program’s first four-game slide since 1988, a streak that certainly will taint Muschamp’s first season in Gainesville.
The latest loss came against Muschamp’s alma mater and eliminated Florida (4-4, 2-4) in the division race.
"Obviously, I didn’t do a very good job of getting our team ready," Muschamp said.
Like so many times before in this series, Georgia found ways to try to give the game away. The Bulldogs allowed a touchdown on a fourth-and-19 play in the first quarter, gave up a 99-yard kickoff return, missed two field goals and had a ball bounce off a running back’s helmet for an interception.
But they overcame those mistakes with Aaron Murray’s two touchdown passes on fourth down and a defensive performance in the second half that will go down in Florida-Georgia lore. The Bulldogs allowed 32 yards and one first down in the second half.
"Everyone has been saying how lopsided the series with Florida has been over the years, but this team was 0-0 going into this game," Murray said. "And now we’re 1-0."
Murray completed 15 of 34 passes for 169 yards, with an interception. He was sacked three times, but also had 42 yards rushing.
The Bulldogs ran 49 times for 185 yards, the latest team to gouge the Gators on the ground. Most of them came after Georgia battled back from a 14-point deficit.
Florida led 17-3 before committing two turnovers that gave the Bulldogs short fields. And Richt, quite possibly with his job on the line with Georgia fans impatient after two straight lackluster seasons, didn’t want to squander the opportunities.
Richt went for it on a fourth-and-5 play at the Florida 20, and Murray found Michael Bennett for a touchdown just before halftime. He also went for it on fourth-and-6 at the Florida 14 in the third. Murray threw a jump ball to the corner, and Tavarres King came down with game-tying score.
Florida followed with a 63-yard kickoff return, which led to a field goal and a 20-17 lead.
It was short-lived, though. Georgia, which had scored first in every game this season, took its first lead on Richard Samuel’s 4-yard run early in the fourth quarter.
The defense did the rest, pressuring John Brantley and minimizing speedsters Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps.
Jarvis Jones had four of Georgia’s six sacks.
"Our seniors and coaches deserved this win," Jones said. "This was a big game for coach; it was a huge game for the SEC race."
Brantley, playing for the first time since badly spraining his right ankle four weeks ago, had some success early. He threw for 226 yards in the first half but was mediocre at best after the break.
He was 12 of 34 passing for 245 yards, but just 2 of 14 in the second half.
"That second half, we’ve just got to be able to finish the game," Brantley said. "We had our opportunities. Like I said, we’ve just got to be able to finish."