JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Shawn Williams’ criticism will be remembered as a challenge.
And No. 12 Georgia responded better than anyone could have expected.
Five days after Williams ripped his defensive teammates for playing too soft, the Bulldogs turned in their best performance of the season – one that will go down in Florida-Georgia lore.
The Bulldogs stuffed the third-ranked Gators from every angle, forcing six turnovers in a 17-9 victory Saturday that left them on the cusp of the Southeastern Conference championship game.
Call it the World’s Largest Outdoor Turnover Party, and it gave Georgia consecutive wins in the heated rivalry for the first time since 1989. These have to be two of the more significant victories of coach Mark Richt’s tenure.
“I’d say we’re not soft,” Richt said. “The defense rose to the occasion. … Our seniors played well, and I know it’s a game they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.”
The victory, just the fifth in the last 23 meetings for Georgia, gave them a chance for even bigger accomplishments.
The Bulldogs (7-1, 5-1 SEC) can clinch the East and a spot in the conference title game with wins against Mississippi and Auburn the next two weeks.
If Georgia plays defense like it did against Florida – it was the first time since 1988 that UGA held the Gators without a touchdown – getting to Atlanta should be a mere formality.
“Shawn challenged us and we took it personal,” Jones said. “As men, when another man challenges you, it will be personal. The guys stepped up to the challenge.”
The Bulldogs did little on offense until Aaron Murray found Malcolm Mitchell for a 45-yard touchdown with 7:11 remaining that put them ahead 17-9. Mitchell spun out of Loucheiz Purifoy’s tackle attempt and went mostly untouched the rest of the way. Florida kept the drive alive with Dominique Easley’s holding penalty on third down.
Georgia sealed it with – what else? – a defensive play.
Jones knocked the ball out of Jordan Reed’s hands at the 5-yard line, and teammate Sanders Commings recovered in the end zone with 2:05 left.
“When I saw him make the first guy miss, I thought he was going to score,” Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel said. “He didn’t take care of the ball, just like the whole team didn’t all night.”
Jones had another huge game against Florida (7-1, 6-1). The junior, who had four sacks in last year’s 24-20 victory, finished with 13 tackles, three sacks and two forced fumbles.