- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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ATHENS, Ga. – Aaron Murray exorcised memories of the most painful loss of his freshman season when his Georgia team beat Florida in 2011. Last season, the defense dominated and Murray overcame a horrendous first half by connecting with Malcolm Mitchell on a win-clinching touchdown pass to beat the Gators for a second straight year.
Now Murray is in position to join a select group of Georgia quarterbacks who defeated Florida three times in their careers -- a win that would be even sweeter since Murray is a Florida native who developed into a record-setting prospect at Tampa's Plant High School.
“The Floridas, the Auburns, the Carolinas, Georgia Techs, these are the games you look forward to all year, especially Florida,” said Murray, who added that the competition was “extremely close” when he finally picked a scholarship offer from Georgia over Urban Meyer's offer from Florida. “It's that neutral site which makes it unique. It's always a great game, great venue.
“Being from Florida, it always adds a little bit more -- always a lot of trash talking between me and friends from back home, which makes it a little bit more fun.”
College Football Hall of Famer Johnny Rauch led the Bulldogs to wins over Florida in all four seasons of his career (1945-48), while Buck Belue piloted Georgia to three wins between 1979 and 1981 -- including the legendary 1980 win, when he connected with Lindsay Scott on the game-winning 93-yard touchdown pass in the game's closing seconds.
According to Georgia's sports communications office, no other Bulldogs starting quarterback has more than two wins against the Gators dating to the 1940s, but Murray could join Rauch and Belue on Saturday.
He actually nearly has three wins against the Gators already. He led a furious second-half rally to force overtime as a freshman in 2010, but he tossed a costly interception that helped Florida escape with a 34-31 victory.
His stat line was not particularly impressive in Georgia's 24-20 win in 2011 (15-for-34 for 169 yards, two touchdowns and one interception), but he connected with Michael Bennett and Tavarres King on fourth-down touchdown passes to help claim the victory.
Then last year, Murray bounced back from one of the worst halves of his career -- he tossed three interceptions -- by going 8-for-16 for 116 yards and hitting Mitchell with the winning 45-yard touchdown pass with just over seven minutes to play.
Pushing the Bulldogs' winning streak in the series would be huge, Murray said, not just because Georgia hasn't beaten the Gators three straight times since 1987-89, but because Georgia needs a win of any sort.
“It would be awesome to win three in a row versus those guys. Yeah, it would be big,” Murray said. “It's just we need a win right now. We need to feel good about ourselves, need a win, get back on track and keep moving.”
Georgia (4-3, 3-2 SEC) and Florida (4-3, 3-2) both got a lift on Saturday night when South Carolina rallied to an overtime win against Missouri, handing the Tigers their first loss of the season. That helped the two-loss Bulldogs, Gators and Gamecocks all remain in the thick of the Eastern Division race, when a Mizzou win would have all but secured a division title for the Tigers.
“I think there's plenty of motivation going into this game, there's no doubt about that,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said on his Sunday teleconference. “Anytime Georgia and Florida play in Jacksonville, it's a big event, it's a big deal, for sure. But knowing that we're still trying to win the East and we're needing help and all that kind of thing, [Missouri's loss] certainly provided some motivation for me, so I would imagine it'll provide motivation for the players, as well.”
The story of the season for both teams has been the long list of injuries that sunk their championship hopes, with eight season-ending injuries to Gators and a series of short- and long-term ailments to key offensive players taking the punch out of the Bulldogs' high-scoring offense.
But Richt said the chance to stay alive in the division race is more than enough reason for Saturday's game to be something besides a pity party.
“We're not feeling sorry for ourselves. I doubt Florida's feeling sorry for themselves,” Richt said. “I think both teams know if we win, we stay in the race for the East. So that's nothing to be feeling pitiful about.”