JACKSONVILLE, FLA. — When the clock finally bled dry and the celebratory hugs began, Kirby Smart pulled Jake Fromm away from a scrum of reporters and lunged into an embrace of notable fervor. Visor askew, the Georgia coach grabbed hold of his quarterback’s face and the two seemed on the verge of tears.
“That,” Fromm said, “was an awesome moment for us.”
The Georgia reaction after beating Florida 24-17 was as much cathartic as triumphant, a release of pressure that had built for weeks around a Bulldogs team that was expected to be much better than it had played to date. A stunning loss to South Carolina, a slog past Kentucky in a deluge, then an open date before this rivalry showdown—all that fanned the fussy flames for a fan base that envisioned the ‘Dogs rolling through the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division and into the College Football Playoff, with their best chance yet under Smart to win it all.
All that offseason confidence had been replaced by simmering dissatisfaction, and a fear that Georgia would lose here, be eliminated from the playoff and give away the inside track to a third straight SEC East title.
The primary complaints were all about the Georgia offense: the new-look receiving corps was a failure; the offensive line was underachieving; coordinator James Coley had to go; and former golden boy Fromm was suffering by comparison to Georgia transfer Justin Fields, now off conquering the world at Ohio State after backing up Fromm in 2018.
From Smart to Fromm and on through the program, the party line was a refusal to acknowledge the contents of the “outside noise” that was buzzing around the Bulldogs. The postgame reactions and comments showed that the party line was a lie.
They heard. They knew. They responded.
“Y’all need to give coach Coley some credit,” Smart said at one point.
“Our fans were all-in it for us,” he said at another point. “Even if they think Jake can’t throw the ball.”
Smart was concerned enough about his three-year starting quarterback that the two met for lunch a couple of times leading up to this Cocktail Party game. Neither Fromm nor his coach went into detail about those lunch meetings, but the talks were deep, ranging beyond football.
“One-on-one stuff about life,” Fromm said. “It was a chance to open up and say what’s in our hearts. I think it definitely helped us out.”
Said Smart: “I was concerned about him. … Jake had a lot of pressure on him.”
Prior to Saturday, Fromm’s career arc had turned the wrong way. He was the surprise freshman standout who took over the job when the more highly touted Jacob Eason got hurt in the opener, guiding Georgia all the way to an SEC title and the College Football Playoff. Last year he was better, leading the ‘Dogs to an 11-1 regular-season record and keeping five-star Fields from seeing many meaningful reps and hastening his transfer.
But through seven games this season, Fromm’s pass efficiency rating was a career-low 152.2, down eight points from his freshman year and 20 from last season. He was coming off back-to-back games with an efficiency rating below 100, something he’d never experienced in consecutive contests.
Nobody much cared whether he was throwing to a rebuilt receiving corps; the production slide was tied to Coley’s play calling and Fromm’s perceived limitations.
Georgia fans grumbled about their game manager, while Fields was morphing into a game-breaker with the undefeated and overpowering Buckeyes. The consensus formed that Smart had backed the wrong horse in the Bulldogs’ quarterback derby.
Against a quality Florida defense Saturday, Fromm was no game manager. He was a playmaking maestro who made the most of several astute calls by the embattled Coley. By the end of the day, a month of fan discontent had disappeared.
For the first time in his career, Fromm threw 30 passes and Georgia won—the team had been 0–5 when he attempted that many passes. He completed 20 of them for 279 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions and took no sacks. The ‘Dogs rode his arm to victory.
In particular, they rode his arm on third down, the money down for quarterbacks and the doomsday down, at times, for Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. Georgia converted 12 third downs, its most in two seasons, out of 18 attempts. The ‘Dogs had been converting 37.5% of their third downs in league play coming into this game.
Doing it against a Grantham defense carried some special sweetness for Georgia. He was the defensive coordinator in Athens from 2010-13, and his blitz-heavy third-down style led to big plays—both ways—and ultimately to a sour catch phrase: “Third and Grantham.” The jist: Grantham would blitz his way into trouble instead of playing a more conservative defense in those situations.
But here’s the thing about this game: it wasn’t a third-and-Grantham deal in the usual sense. Florida mixed attacks and coverages on third downs instead of pouring on blitzes. Fact is, none of it worked.
“Third down we just gotta get off the field,” said Florida defensive end Jon Greenard, who had been leading the team in sacks. “We’ve got to get to the quarterback. He was too comfortable back there. I was terrible. I was ass today. No excuse.”
Gator self-loathing aside, Georgia’s execution level on third downs was quite high. Its offensive line protected expertly, and Fromm delivered the ball to receivers who made big catches.
“Twelve of 18 on third down was impeccable,” wideout Lawrence Cager said. “That’s crazy.”
Cager figured prominently here. Georgia fans who hated the transfer portal after it took Fields away loved it Saturday, because it brought them Cager from Miami and tight end Eli Wolf from Tennessee as immediately eligible graduate transfers.
Wolf helped out the game away with the final third-down conversion of the day, a 22-yard catch on third-and-seven with Georgia leading by seven and trying to run out the clock. That was a gutty call by Coley that was co-signed by Smart, who has been accused of being too conservative.
Cager tore up Florida with career highs of seven catches and 132 yards, including a 52-yard touchdown on a deft first-down deep shot called by Coley. He had missed the second half against South Carolina with a shoulder injury and the entire game against Kentucky, both of which were factors in the dwindling offensive production of the Bulldogs.
“I was dead,” Cager said. “I hadn’t played in two weeks. You’ve got to rise from the dead sometimes.”
Cager wasn’t the only one in red and black feeling resurrected Saturday. Jake Fromm found new life—and new depth to his relationship with his coach.