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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Gators show signs of promise amid humbling defeat to No. 1 Georgia

Florida continues to build toward future success

Freshman wide receiver Eugene Wilson III runs with the ball past a Georgia defender in the Gators’ 43-20 loss against the Georgia Bulldogs on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023.
Freshman wide receiver Eugene Wilson III runs with the ball past a Georgia defender in the Gators’ 43-20 loss against the Georgia Bulldogs on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023.

Florida redshirt junior quarterback Graham Mertz rushed behind his center and plowed into the end zone late in the fourth quarter against the No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs. The touchdown was nothing more than a historical footnote, adding some shine to a 43-20 Gators defeat.

UF couldn’t compete with Georgia — and has now lost the last three to the rival Bulldogs. 

Even in a blowout loss, however, Florida head coach Billy Napier’s program continues to build and show glimpses of a future where the Gators can once again rival their northern neighbors.

“I think this is the eighth year for [UGA head coach] Kirby [Smart] and, look, we've got work to do to chase them down,” Napier said. “We're in the middle of that process, in the middle of that journey.”

Florida looked like it was ready to compete with the Bulldogs on the first drive of the game. The Gators’ passing attack ripped through the Georgia secondary, and freshman receiver Eugene Wilson III raced 27 yards for a touchdown. 

Wilson continues to look like a future cornerstone for Florida. He set a new UF freshman record with 10 receptions. The former blue chip prospect is now second on the Gators in receptions and receiving yards despite missing two games due to injury.

Several young players got their first taste against Georgia in the loss. Redshirt freshman tight end Hayden Hansen caught a touchdown pass and freshman safeties Jordan Castell and Bryce Thornton both had eight tackles each.

“I think [experience is] important for our staff, but it's invaluable for young players,” Napier said. “I think that I'm hopeful that they'll take what they learned today and go back to work.”

These flashes of potential were often undermined by Florida’s mistakes. 

Florida trailed by three after a competitive first quarter. However, things unraveled in a series of disastrous moments. The Gators faced a fourth down deep in their own territory, but a trick play went awry and the ball turned over to Georgia.

Mertz was stripped on the next drive and Georgia scored a touchdown four plays later. After a quick Florida three-and-out, the Bulldogs blocked the ensuing punt and scored on a safety. A three-point deficit ballooned to a 19-point one in a matter of moments.

“We made too many critical mistakes,” Napier said. “I think, in particular, the two huge mistakes in the first half allowed the game to kind of get out of control to some degree.”

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Even if the mistakes blew open the game, Florida struggled to contain Georgia throughout the game. Bulldogs quarterback Carson Beck diced up the Gators’ secondary with 315 yards, and Georgia rumbled for 178 rushing yards and three scores.

UF’s young defense is reeling after a promising start to the season. Florida has allowed more than 30 points in three of its last four games. The Gators are struggling to make big plays as well, with the fewest sacks in the SEC. 

Florida’s leadership was optimistic the team would build from the Oct. 28 loss and end the season on a positive note. The Gators still have four games left to play this season, including No. 13 LSU, No. 14 Missouri and No. 4 Florida State in the season finale.

The Georgia loss has been a defining moment in the last two seasons, but not for the right reasons. The Gators went 2-3 after losing to the Bulldogs each of the last two years, including losses to Vanderbilt and South Carolina.

This year’s players are confident that won’t be the case this season.

“I'll tell you right now it's not going to snowball,” Mertz said. “We know what this team has. And we know that our best is still out there.”

The Gators will get a chance to respond when they host the Arkansas Razorbacks at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium Nov. 4. The game is scheduled for noon and will be broadcast on ESPN2.

Contact Topher Adams at tadams@alligator.org. Follow him on Twitter @Topher_Adams.


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Topher Adams

Topher Adams is a fourth-year communications major and in his fourth semester with the Alligator. He previously covered football, baseball and women's basketball. He also enjoys professional lacrosse and Major League Soccer.


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