Dan Mullen’s offense hit the ground running but it was the passing game and Feleipe Franks that lit up the scoreboard early. The last two games have been closer to what we expected when Mullen took over with the Gators’ offense imposing its will on opponents with a powerful rushing attack.
Mullen knows the importance of running the ball in this game specifically. It was 13 years ago when Mullen was first indoctrinated into the Florida-Georgia rivalry as the Gators’ offensive coordinator. Florida lost to Alabama that season 31-2 and two weeks later to LSU 27-17.
Mullen’s phone ran around lunch time the Sunday after the LSU loss. It was Urban Meyer and he needed Mullen at his house. Meyer and Mullen spent most of that Sunday and the rest of the bye week tinkering and re-vamping the Florida offense. Their Utah spread wasn’t working with Chris Leak and they knew they couldn’t keep going the way they were.
“We were really learning as coaches,” Mullen said of that 2005 coaching staff. “I think you had a bunch of young coaches on the staff at the time and I think we really got here, learned, you’re always learning, always getting better but really learned that, to me as a coach coaching is really about putting your guys in position to be successful and utilizing the personnel you have, not just that you have all the interest in your scheme. It’s how does your scheme fit your personnel.”
Florida went right down the field, led by running back DeShawn Wynn and scored on the first drive. They scored another touchdown in the first quarter and held on for a 14-10 win. The 2005 game was also the last time the team with the most rushing yards didn’t win the game.
That brings us to this game. Mullen will coach in his first Florida-Georgia game since 2008 — a 49-10 Florida win Mullen described as “a lot of fun — and the commitment to the running game is back. No. 7 Georgia (6-1, 4-1) and No. 9 Florida (6-1, 4-1) both will try and run the football this weekend. Florida is 7th in the SEC in rushing (197.3 ypg) and 11th in rushing defense (163.14 ypg). The Bulldogs are the SEC’s third best rushing offense (226.3 ypg) and the 8th best rushing defense (136.3 ypg).
After posting a season low 118 rushing yards against Mississippi State the Gators’ running game has found its legs with back-to-back 200-yard efforts. That starts up front with the offensive line and the running game has been so effective it even earned praise from its biggest critic, offensive line coach John Hevesy.
“They’re getting better. We’re getting better. I’m pleased,” he said. “I’ll give it that. Pleased. To me I think we still have a long way to go and we still have to keep understanding the game, keep understanding the fundamentals, understand the situational football to become a better team.”
Behind the offensive line Florida has found the right mix of running backs with Jordan Scarlett and Lamical Perine. The two running backs compliment each other well. Scarlett is great between the tackles and can pick up tough yards. Perine is an all around back and Florida’s best pass catcher out of the backfield. They’re not necessarily thunder and lightning but they feed off of each other.
“Sometimes he comes out there and he’s doing great out there and then he comes back like ‘J, man, you get this play make sure you look to do this because that’s what they’re giving me,’” Scarlett said. “That helps me out and helps me think faster when I get in there so I can execute.”
Georgia has a duo of their own in Elijah Holyfield and D’Andre Swift. Holyfield’s 7.51 yards-per-carry is second in the SEC and he’s 10th in rushing yards per game. The Bulldogs have rushed for over 200 yards in five of seven games this season but are coming off of a season low 113 yards on 30 carries against LSU. Georgia got away from its running game down in Death Valley and paid the price with a 36-16 loss.
There’s no doubt Georgia will try to get back on track with its running game. Whether it’s Holyfield and Swift or even adding in freshman quarterback Justin Fields Georgia knows it will need to win this game on the ground. Middle linebacker David Reese knows that will be the plan as well.
“Oh, gotta be the run,” Reese said when asked what the defensive key to the game would be. “I feel like that’s what they’re gonna go back to. They tried to go away from it against LSU, and they see where that got them, so I know they’re gonna try to go back to the run.”
So it’s going to be that kind of game in Jacksonville and maybe that’s the way it should be. There’s not a lot of love lost between these fan bases. There is a mutual respect between the teams but not a lot of happy feelings will be expressed Saturday and Florida is looking to get back at Georgia after a disastrous 2017 game.
“We know it’s going to be a back and forth game. We’re not going to get down on anything if anything does happen, we’re facing the adversity and we did a good job of that during the season,” Reese said. “I’m not worried about adversity, we know there’s going to be some in every ball game. We have a mature team. They lost a lot of guys last year. I feel like it’s our time to pay them back.”