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Florida Gators fall 24-17 to Georgia Bulldogs

The Gators watched their SEC East hopes evaporate with every third-down conversion they allowed.

JACKSONVILLE — Before defensive coordinator Todd Grantham even called his first play for the Gators, he was already being asked about it: “Third and Grantham.”

It was the derogatory term Georgia fans invented when he was an assistant in Athens to explain his struggles on third and long. Now Florida knows all about it.

The Gators watched their SEC East hopes evaporate Saturday with every third-down conversion they allowed to No. 8 Georgia in a 24-17 loss that crushed their SEC East hopes. Coach Dan Mullen didn’t have a single answer to explain why No. 6 Florida (7-2, 4-2 SEC) simply couldn’t get off the field.

“I mean, you can go in every direction you want to go,” Mullen said.

Start with a lack of pressure.

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Even with the return of starting pass rushers Jabari Zuniga and Jonathan Greenard from ankle injuries, Florida couldn’t get after Jake Fromm. The Gators — who entered Saturday with the eighth-most sacks in the nation — finished without one for only the third time under Mullen. The other two were also losses (at LSU this year, vs. Kentucky last year).

Florida pressured Fromm twice on his 30 throws and only once on third down.

“They locked us up today,” Greenard said.

With plenty of time to throw, Fromm picked apart the Gators’ secondary. His first conversion (third and 14) was an easy catch and run by Miami transfer Lawrence Cager. His second (third and 11) was a calm toss to Demetris Robertson.

Those third downs added up. Four in a row on the first drive led to a field goal. Busted coverage on another in the second quarter resulted in Dominick Blaylock’s 3-yard touchdown catch.

Considering that Mullen thought Georgia (7-1, 4-1) was vulnerable when playing from behind, a 10-0 hole midway through the first half was devastating.

“You get out of your game plan a little bit,” Mullen said.

Florida’s third-down futility on offense made matters worse. The Gators failed on their first five attempts. Add those struggles to the defensive miscues, and Florida ran only 26 plays through the first 42 minutes.

"Whenever you can't convert on third down, it's hard to get into a rhythm and it's hard to get drives started,” center Nick Buchanan said.

Georgia Bulldogs quarterback Jake Fromm (11) runs the ball for a first down during the first half of the game at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, Florida on Saturday, November 2, 2019. [Times]

When Florida’s offense found its rhythm with a pair of fourth-quarter Kyle Trask touchdown passes, the defense couldn’t hold.

After Van Jefferson’s touchdown catch made it a one-score game with 13:51 left, the Gators failed to tackle running back D’Andre Swift twice on third and 1. That drive ended with Fromm’s 52-yard touchdown pass to Cager.

After Florida’s offense scored again to make it a seven-point game, Florida ’s defense failed, again. On third and 7 with 2:53 left, Fromm lobbed a pass to tight end Eli Wolf for 22 yards and the game-sealing first down.

It was an ugly flashback to last year’s matchup at TIAA Bank Field, where all four of Georgia’s touchdowns in a 36-17 win happened on third down.

RELATED: Georgia football’s rise comes at the expense of Florida, in more ways than one

The Bulldogs’ 12 third-down conversions (on 18 attempts) were tied for their second most since 2014. Missouri met or exceeded that figure twice (2017, 2014), and Louisville also gave up 12 in the 2014 Belk Bowl. The Cardinals’ defensive coordinator in that game? Todd Grantham.

The Gators were quick to defend Grantham, and rightfully so. Florida wouldn’t have entered Saturday in the top 10 nationally without his elite defense. The “Third and Grantham” jab ignores the fact that his defenses were No. 10 nationally in that stat in 2016 and 2017.

But the reputation remains. Grantham was even asked about it before his first preseason camp at Florida in 2018.

“I’m not sure where it came from…” Grantham said then. “You're good on third down when you have guys that can rush and guys that can cover.”

And Grantham didn’t have enough of either Saturday, giving the Gators their first three-game losing streak to Georgia since 2011-13.

Contact Matt Baker at Follow @MBakerTBTimes