JACKSONVILLE — Truth is, the "chirping" from the outside was seriously starting to get on Florida's nerves.
The Gator players and coaches kept insisting, particularly in the week leading up to Saturday's showdown with archrival Georgia, that the constant criticism of its anemic offense — from fans, analysts, pollsters and pretty much everybody — wasn't affecting them at all.
But on Saturday the Gators revealed that the criticism was weighing heavily on their minds and quite frankly, just making them mad.
Which turned out to be very bad for Georgia.
In its strongest offensive performance since its Sept. 26 win over Kentucky, Florida set out to silence the critics with a 41-17 victory over Georgia in front of 84,604 at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium.
"Nonsense was coming at them from all over the place," UF offensive coordinator Steve Addazio said. "That's what it is. (We told them) just go play. And they did that. There's been an inordinate amount of criticism. You're undefeated, you're 8-0."
The No. 1 Gators (8-0, 6-0 SEC) extended their win streak to a school-record 18 games and have won 17 of their past 20 against the Bulldogs (4-4, 3-3 SEC).
With Tennessee's victory over South Carolina, the Gators clinched their second consecutive SEC East championship and a spot in the league title game.
Florida gained 374 yards on offense, including 210 rushing. The Gators also got four interceptions from their linebackers — two from A.J. Jones, and one each from Ryan Stamper and Brandon Spikes, who returned his 5 yards to give the Gators their final margin of victory.
Florida quarterback Tim Tebow was 15-of-21 for 164 yards and two touchdowns, and also rushed 18 times for 85 yards and two touchdowns. His first rushing touchdown was his 50th, breaking the SEC all-time rushing touchdowns record set by former Georgia All-American Herschel Walker. Tebow, who has taken the brunt of the criticism for the Gators' offensive struggles in SEC games, said the talk motivated him this week.
"I think a little bit," Tebow said when asked if he had taken the criticism personally. "I think that's just a little bit of my nature is emotion, and I'm a very passionate player and person. I think I take it on myself — the criticism of coach Addazio, the criticism of the offensive line, the receivers. And I think a lot of that can be changed by how I play too. So I think this game started us in a little new direction."
That new direction began from the opening kickoff. The struggling offense broke out of its slump early on Saturday with the Gators scoring two touchdowns in the first quarter. The Gators had 157 offensive yards in the first quarter and led 14-0.
"That first quarter was dynamic," Florida coach Urban Meyer said. "That's as good a first quarter as we've had. … Coach Addazio did a great job of mixing it up, run and pass."
Florida opened the game with an 80-yard drive that culminated in a 22-yard pass to Clearwater's Riley Cooper. The senior receiver had four receptions for 78 yards and two touchdowns. His 29-yarder with 3:20 remaining in the first quarter was a spectacular one-handed catch in the corner of the end zone with his foot barely remaining inbounds.
"That was one of the finest catches I've ever seen," Meyer said.
"I've had a few (one-handed catches), but probably not in such a big game like this," Cooper said. "This was a little different. It was definitely fun."
Florida had 244 yards of offense in the first half.
Florida led 24-10 at halftime after Georgia rallied to pull within 14-10 with a 26-yard pass from quarterback Joe Cox to Aron White with 10:40 remaining in the first half.
And though Georgia gained 286 yards (121 rushing), the four interceptions were their undoing.
"Two were tips and one was just a bad throw," Cox said. "I lost the game with three picks. That score does not reflect how we played, how we moved the ball. I mean, it's the truth. Any time you turn the ball over that many times and give people chances to score, a good team is going to score and they did and that's why we got beat."
"I thought there was some good fight, but you can't turn it over like we did in the second half and mount a comeback," Georgia coach Mark Richt said.
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3389. Read her blog at blogs.tampabay.com/gators.