Florida Gators, Napier fall to No. 1 Georgia. Call it 4th and Done

JACKSONVILLE — Before Billy Napier took over the Gators, his “scared money don’t make money” philosophy endeared him to the Florida fan base.

“I think it’s going to help me justify all these times I go for fourth down and don’t get it,” Napier said then.

Saturday’s 43-20 loss to No. 1 Georgia will test that. Forty-seven years after this series gave us “Fourth and Dumb,” Napier provided another historic, easy-to-second-guess decision that doomed his team.

Call it Fourth and Done.

The play — Trevor Etienne’s stuffed run — itself wasn’t the reason why Florida (5-2, 3-2 SEC) lost to its rival up north for the third consecutive time. But there was no coming back from it. Not against these Bulldogs (8-0, 5-0), who might not be as good as they were in their back-to-back national title runs but remain heads, shoulders, knees and toes above the Gators.

“We knew it was going to be a momentum game…” quarterback Graham Mertz said. “It definitely shifted the momentum.”

The momentum might have shifted the play before at EverBank Stadium. Florida was trailing 10-7 when Mertz hit Kahleil Jackson for what initially was ruled a third-down conversion. But a replay review between the first and second quarter overturned the conversion and set up fourth and less than a yard at the Florida 34.

“I think 1 (yard) was a go,” Napier said.

So he went for it. As Georgia expected.

“I told (the Bulldogs), my gut intuition is this game is going to come down to some short-yardage situations,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said.

That’s because Napier bought into gutsy play calls during his four seasons at Louisiana, where he went 40-12 with a Sun Belt Conference title. The analytical decisions aren’t spontaneous; they’re heavily researched and evaluated in the offseason. For better and worse, they’re a part of his resume. Mississippi (20) entered Saturday as the only SEC team with more fourth-down attempts than the Gators (17). But their success rate (46.7%) ranked seventh.

Rather than attempt a rush up the middle, Napier went with deception — the type of play that makes sense when you’re undermanned after years of being out-recruited by Smart’s Bulldogs. It’s also the decision you make if you’re trying to keep up with a top-10 scoring offense.

“I think, ultimately, at that point in the game we felt it was going to be a point total that we needed to get to, to win the game,” Napier said.

Mertz lined up behind center in the pistol formation, then rushed toward the line. It looked like a sneak. It wasn’t.

The snap went through Mertz’s legs to Etienne in the backfield. He’d have the option to run left or pass — something he showed he could do with his successful two-point conversion at South Carolina.

“Felt we had a good play,” Napier said. “I think we’re close there.”

But close doesn’t cut it against a defense loaded with blue-chip talent. Five-star linebacker Smael Mondon ran off the edge, slammed into Etienne and dragged him down for a 3-yard loss.

Three plays later, Daijun Edwards ran 20 untouched yards for a touchdown that gave the Bulldogs a 17-7 lead. The Gators were done.

Before Etienne was stuffed, Georgia outgained Florida 137-100. After it, the Bulldogs outgained the Gators 349-239. Those numbers alone don’t show how much the game shifted. Florida’s five drives after the failure were a lost fumble (which led to a Georgia touchdown), a blocked punt that went out of the end zone for a safety, a three-and-out and two more punts.

Napier’s unsuccessful gamble drew immediate comparisons to the one Doug Dickey called for Florida in 1976, now known as “Fourth and Dumb.” Florida led by a touchdown in the third quarter then when Dickey tried for a fourth-and-less-than-1 conversion at his own 29.

“I went for it because I figured we weren’t stopping Georgia,” Dickey said afterward.

Doesn’t sound too different from what Napier said Saturday about needing to hit a high point total to have a shot at winning.

But that comparison is incomplete. Georgia only scored 21 consecutive points after Dickey’s gaffe. Napier’s team allowed 26 in a row.

There also was more than enough time for these Gators to overcome one play call. They did not. When Napier gave his quick overview of the loss, he didn’t even mention that play. He cited the blocked punt and fumble as the “two huge mistakes” that doomed Florida in the first half.

But both of them flowed from the questionable call Napier made before it.

The fourth-down failure that left the Gators done.

• • •

Sign up for the Sports Today newsletter to get daily updates on the Bucs, Rays, Lightning and college football across Florida.

Never miss out on the latest with your favorite Tampa Bay sports teams. Follow our coverage on Instagram, X and Facebook.