JACKSONVILLE — John Brantley tried to lift Florida up. Instead, the Gators hit a new low Saturday.
Everything Florida was playing for entering the season — a Southeastern Conference championship, an East division title — went out the window in a 24-20 loss to No. 22 Georgia (6-2, 5-1 SEC) at EverBank Field.
The Gators’ senior quarterback made his return from a high ankle sprain suffered against Alabama on Oct. 1, but it wasn’t enough to help Florida (4-4, 2-4 SEC) avoid a four-game losing streak for the first time since 1988 and a winless October for the first time since 1979.
“A gusty performance on his part,” coach Will Muschamp said. “He’s a guy that really laid it on the line.”
Brantley didn’t go through pregame warm-ups with the rest of the team and was unable to take snaps from under center because of the ankle. As a result, Florida ran mostly four- and five-receiver sets against Georgia, limiting what the offense could do.
The senior completed his first pass of the day to running back Jeff Demps for a 72-yard gain on a screen play, and also put the Gators on the board first with a 31-yard pass on fourth and 19 to tight end Jordan Reed.
Despite the gutsy performance on one good leg, Brantley struggled, completing just 12 of 34 passes for 245 yards — 226 of which came in the first half. Still, Florida went into the break with a 17-10 lead thanks to a pair of Brad Phillips field goals and a Jeff Demps 99-yard kick return touchdown.
“We started out fast and we started out good,” Brantley said. “That second half — we’ve just got to be able to finish the game.”
But the Gators weren’t able to finish the game, as they couldn’t get anything started after halftime.
In the second half, Brantley connected on just 2 of his 14 attempts, and the Gators’ offense was unable to move the ball, collecting one first down the rest of the game.
While Brantley struggled, he didn’t get much help from the rest of his team.
Receivers dropped passes, most notably one that would have been a touchdown by Chris Rainey early in the game; the run game was nonexistent, as the Gators were stuffed for minus-19 yards on 22 rushes; the team committed 14 penalties for 106 yards and Florida’s pass protection broke down time and time again.
Brantley was sacked six times against Georgia, including four times by Bulldogs linebacker Jarvis Jones. The last came on a fourth-and-10 play on the Gators’ final possession with the Bulldogs leading 24-20, essentially sealing the game for Georgia.
“Jarvis is a good player,” Muschamp said. “He’s their best rusher. … But again, in those situations, that’s why you’ve got to be able to have some sort of run game to slow down the rush.”
While the Gators were unable to establish a ground game out of shotgun, they were also unable to capitalize on prime field position. Four times Florida started a drive in Georgia territory, but the Gators only had a field goal and minus-24 yards on 14 plays to show for it.
“Those are very frustrating to deal with,” Muschamp said. “We had our opportunities the last two ballgames. We’ve got to close it out and win those games.”
But the only thing the Gators were able to close out Saturday was a winless October, and now they are spectators as Georgia and South Carolina vie for what were once Florida’s season goals: the division crown and a shot at the SEC title.
Instead, the Gators are left simply playing for pride.
With four games on the schedule, Florida needs to win two to become bowl eligible and try to salvage a sinking season.
“Everyone is taking it hard, it’s four games in a row that we lost,” defensive tackle Jaye Howard said. “One thing we can do is keep the team … motivated and keep pushing. The season is not over; we can go out and win and get a good bowl game, so that’s what we’re playing for right now.”
Contact Tom Green at [email protected].