JACKSONVILLE — With Georgia leading by 20 points at halftime of Saturday afternoon's game against heated rival Florida, coach Mark Richt was asked how pleased he was with his team's performance.
"I told them it's only a half," Richt said. "It's only a half. You've got to understand college football, SEC football, this rivalry."
Richt knew of what he was speaking.
After failing to score a touchdown during the first half, Florida scored 17 consecutive points in the second before Georgia managed to put together a drive that lasted the final 8:17 and hold on for a 23-20 victory in front of 84,693 at EverBank Field.
It is the first time the Bulldogs (5-3, 4-2 SEC) have won three in a row over the Gators (4-4, 3-3) since 1987-89, and Tampa native Aaron Murray is their first quarterback to accomplish the feat since Buck Belue (1979-81).
For the Gators, it was a comeback that fell short and eliminated them from contention in the SEC East.
"It's very frustrating," linebacker Mike Taylor said of the three consecutive losses to the Bulldogs. "It's frustrating that words can't even describe."
In what has become a pattern, Florida fell behind early. The last time the Gators led an opponent was three seconds into the second quarter at LSU on Oct. 12: 3-0 in what would start a three-game losing streak.
Saturday, Florida trailed 23-3 at halftime as Georgia dominated, gaining 335 yards.
"Everybody just had to calm down," Florida senior receiver Solomon Patton said. "This is such a big game, and I think everybody needed to calm down. And that's what everybody did coming into the second half."
Florida's first big break came late in the third quarter when Murray's fumble on a lateral was recovered by lineman Leon Orr, setting it up on the Georgia 14. Two plays later, Mack Brown scored on a 5-yard run.
Then with 1:23 remaining in the third quarter, cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy sacked Murray for a safety that pulled the Gators to within 23-12.
And 40 seconds into the fourth quarter, Florida quarterback Tyler Murphy (13-of-29, 174 yards) rushed for a 14-yard touchdown — set up by his 25-yard run — cutting the deficit to 23-20.
"We didn't change much at halftime," Murphy said. "We just took it upon ourselves as players to execute and make it happen."
Florida had a chance to take the lead after holding Georgia on fourth and 1 with 11:20 left. But linebacker Neiron Ball was called for unsportsmanlike conduct for removing his helmet, causing the Gators to begin their drive on their 46 instead of the Bulldogs 39. The six-play drive stalled, and Florida was forced to punt.
Georgia followed by gaining 67 of its 79 second-half yards of offense to run out the clock.
"I'm very proud of our players and the effort, their intensity, their fight, their resolve to battle back," Florida coach Will Muschamp said. "We dug ourselves too big of a hole, especially the big plays on defense early in the game. We settled down in the second half. We need to get out of the gate quicker to get momentum for our team."
Florida missed two field goals: a 40-yarder by Frankie Velez in the first quarter and a 47-yarder by Austin Hardin in the third quarter.
For Georgia, the big story was tailback Todd Gurley, who returned from an ankle injury that kept him out for all of October. In the first half, he had four carries for 64 yards and a touchdown and three receptions for 87 yards — including a 73-yard catch-and-run (on third and 16) 5:41 in to give Georgia a 14-0 lead.
"He helped a little bit, didn't he?" Richt said. "He played so well those first couple of series."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]