Murphy’s Law, Murphy’s Team

It was an eerie moment of uncertainty in The Swamp last Saturday, as Florida’s Junior quarterback, Jeff Driskel, fell to the turf early in the first quarter against Tennessee.

Like many times in his career, Driskel forced a pass into coverage that never should have been thrown (unless his target was Tennessee’s band conductor, that would have been absolutely super). The errant pass, intended for receiver Trey Burton, was easily intercepted by Tennessee’s Devaun Swafford and returned 62 yards for a touchdown, giving the Vols an early 7-0 lead.

As Swafford raced toward the north endzone, the entire season likely flashed before the eyes of a delirious Gator Nation. The offense had seemingly picked up where it left off in South Florida, and to make matters worse, the result of the play culminated in a season-ending injury to Florida’s beleaguered junior quarterback.

For the second time in three years, the Gator’s offense will be without its starter behind center…(is it even possible to read that sentence without nodding your head in disgust from side-to-side?)

It’s an orange and blue case of the old adage called “Murphy’s Law.” It states, “anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” What a buzz kill that Murphy dude must’ve been. I personally prefer “hope for the best, prepare for the worst.” But, I digress.

It is hard to find the right word to describe the way this 2013 season has started, and has since evolved. Disappointment comes to mind when you think about the way Florida was able to control the Miami game, yet still lose due to mental breakdowns and unforced errors. Baffling is another word when you consider the amount of injuries, specifically to key players, that has put a major dent in this team before we’ve even reached October, the key month that will almost certainly determine whether this team is one fighting and grinding towards an SEC East title, or just a team lacking in hope and desperately clawing at a chance just to become bowl eligible.

The two words I think best describe Florida’s situation are frustration and disbelief. It’s frustrating to see empty seats in a stadium that is one of college football’s true hallowed cathedrals of the South. It’s frustrating that in year three of the Will Muschamp era, the offense is not developing the way it should under offensive coordinator Brent Pease. Adding insult to injury (no pun intended) is the concern that was aroused due to Driskel’s season-ending injury. The gravity of this loss was already so devastating, that by the time news of Dominique Easley’s season-ending injury began circulating around Gainesville, a sense of numbness, dread and disbelief seemed to permanently set in.

Injuries are detrimental to any team’s success, but almost anybody covering this team, including fans, pointed specifically to Driskel as the man which Florida could not afford to lose if it had any realistic hopes of returning to the SEC Championship Game.

While that theory may still hold true, not even the most die-hard Gator fan could have predicted what happened after the untimely loss of Driskel; For that was only half of the story in Florida’s 31-17 victory over Tennessee in front of 90,074 inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

The other half of the story began as redshirt Junior quarterback Tyler Murphy trotted onto Florida Field with an aura of surprising and inspiring calm, despite his lack of experience and the fact that his team found itself trailing by a touchdown. Murphy, who had never even attempted a single pass in his career, responded with a performance that left Gator fans with at least a sense of guarded hopefulness heading into its first SEC road game against Kentucky this Saturday. Murphy accounted for 218 total yards, with 84 of those yards on the ground. Florida was 10 for 18 on 3rd down, the majority of those conversions by way of Murphy’s scrambling ability.

A well deserved, tip of the proverbial cap to Murphy. In what appeared to be a perfect recipe for a potential Tennessee upset, Murphy managed the game like a seasoned veteran. It wasn’t always pretty, but Florida has its first SEC win of the year, which is all that matters.

Steve Spurrier said it best–”Statistics are for losers and assistant coaches.” For the rest of this season, it doesn’t matter if Florida wins every single game by a point. It doesn’t matter if they win because of a blown call. All that matters is winning, and while I believe Jeff Driskel is still Florida’s best quarterback, Tyler Murphy’s style of play may lead to more victories. Murphy may not be the quarterback that Florida wants, but if he protects the ball and manages the game like he did against Tennessee, he may be the quarterback that Florida needs at this point.

It is important to remember, however, that last Saturday, no matter how encouraging of a victory, was at home against a defense that has given up 110 points in its last three games. Florida is staring at a daunting schedule with approaching games at LSU, South Carolina, Georgia in Jacksonville, and the season finale against FSU at home.

Those games will arrive in due time. For now, the Gators must focus on the matter at hand: The University of Kentucky Wildcats. Florida has been dominant in the series, winning 26 meetings in a row. The Gators and Cats have played every year since 1967, when Steve Spurrier’s old coach, Ray Graves, steered the helm at Florida. In that span of 46 years, Kentucky has celebrated a victory of the Gators five times (really let that sink in). It is a number that Kentucky fans are too aware of. Needless to say, they will be fired up at the prospect of upsetting this injury-afflicted Gators squad.

There are times when losing to Kentucky is an acceptable outcome in Gainesville. However, that time is known as basketball season.

Wildcat fans believe that this is the year the streak ends. Kentucky’s first-year coach Mark Stoops is familiar with the Florida offense and has had two weeks to prepare for a match-up that would absolutely solidify his relationship with the Kentucky fan base. If anybody watched Kentucky’s game against Louisville three weeks ago, they should know that Kentucky can absolutely beat Florida if the Gators continue to struggle offensively, particularly with turnovers.

With that said, this game is much more important to Florida. The Gators have now lost a top player from their offense and defense, and it hasn’t even played its fourth game yet. Coach Muschamp believes he has a resilient group of young men, and they need to prove that tonight. It might turn into one of those spooky nights in Lexington, when a team faces gut check time in the fourth quarter. Danny Wuerffel and Chris Doering can tell you all about that. Chris Leak can too, because like Murphy, Leak’s first career start for Florida came on the road against Kentucky—a game where Florida over came a 21-3 deficit to win the game in the final minutes.

Kentucky isn’t known for having hostile fans, but the stadium will be at least near-capacity; Full of fans who believe that his is the day they have been waiting for, for 26 years.

Until (or if) Florida finds itself out of the SEC race, every game is a must-win. The Murphy era has begun. In all kinds of whether, we all stick together. The Gators will be in a battle at 7:00 in Lexington, marred with uncertainty on offense.

Perhaps the only certain thing about this team is its defense. They will have to remind the nation why Florida is still a dangerous team, even without their team leaders. They’ll also have to remind Kentucky that basketball season is still very much around the corner.

Tennessee @ Florida: Gators once bitten, twice shy?

Once upon a football season, in an SEC galaxy far away, the Tennessee Volunteers broke Gator hearts young and old. “Once upon a time,” is a phrase ever so fitting, because it certainly feels like it has been ages since Tennessee has even sniffed the sweet scent of ‘Big Orange’ victory against its bitter rivals from Gainesville.

It was December of 2001, and the Gators were welcoming the rival Volunteers into The Swamp—a place where a Tennessee team had not beaten Florida since 1971. On that ’71 Volunteer team was an All-SEC offensive guard named Phil Fulmer, who was now head coach of Tennessee. Fulmer led his squad on a 99-yard touchdown drive to clinch a 20-13 victory that day at Florida Field in 1971, yet grew to know Florida as his unbeatable arch nemesis as head coach.

That all changed on December 1, 2001, as the game was rescheduled while the nation stood sill after the tragedy of September 11. The game couldn’t have been more exciting—College Gameday was in town and Florida was #2 in the country with one game separating it from another SEC East title. Gator fans were very confident; Florida was a two-touchdown favorite over #5 Tennessee. That’s right, two touchdowns over the 5th ranked team in the country. This, however, was pretty routine because Florida was so untouchable at home under Steve Spurrier, especially against the Vols. The Gator faithful were expecting another party in The Swamp—which is what most UF home games turned into back then.

That party was crashed by Tennessee RB Travis Stephens. Stephens ran over, around, and mostly right through the Florida defense all evening. Stephens galloped for 226 yards and two touchdowns on just 19 carries as Tennessee upset the Gators 34-32. Among the then-record crowd of 85,771 inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, none of us knew this would be the last time Steve Spurrier would roam the west sidelines as Head Ball Coach.

Gators and Volunteers certainly don’t agree on much (like Jabar Gaffney’s touchdown catch in 2000), but without a doubt look back and long for the old days when the rivalry was reverently referred to as the “Third Saturday in September.”

Florida-Tennessee used to be the first must win of the season. It used to mean the winner had the inside track on the SEC Eastern Division. In fact, the first 10 SEC Championship games featured either Florida or Tennessee representing the East. In total, Florida or Tennessee has played in 15 of the 21 SEC Titles, the last being Florida in 2009. Times have changed.

Don’t get me wrong, the fact that Florida can potentially extend its winning streak over Tennessee to nine games Saturday is thrilling. Yet, when ESPN announced that College Gameday would be spending the weekend known in seasons past as “separation Saturday” live from North Dakota State University, the message was loud and clear to the nation that the Florida-Tennessee rivalry has officially lost its luster and mystique.

The 2013 edition of Florida-Tennessee is now the first can’t lose game of the season, especially for No. 19 Florida (1-1), which is in desperate need of improvement on the offensive side of the ball. Could you even imagine the aftermath of a Tennessee victory in The Swamp this weekend? I don’t think I even want to go there. The Gators are vulnerable, coming in after one of the sloppiest offensive performances in recent memory, losing at Miami 21-16 two weeks ago. While out-gaining Miami by 200 yards, Florida turned the ball over four times inside the Hurricane 20 yard line, including a failed conversion on 4th and inches. Needless to say, ball protection is of the greatest emphasis for the UF offense this Saturday.

The news isn’t all bad for this Gator team that is trying to get its season back on track. Tennessee (2-1) is coming off a 59-14 loss at Oregon last weekend. Frankly, the score doesn’t even indicate how dominant Oregon was. The Ducks steamrolled the Volunteer defense for 687 yards and scored 59 points before the third quarter ended. That’s encouraging news for the Gator offense which has scored only 40 points through two games.

I don’t think there is a whole lot to breakdown as far as the X’s and O’s go. The only thing I ask of the coaching staff is to get the freshmen play-makers involved offensively. Florida has two potential star receivers in Ahmad Fulwood and Demarcus Robinson, not to mention one of the nation’s top High School running backs in Kelvin Taylor from year ago. Those could be three difference makers for Florida’s offense as we near October, and the bulk of the SEC schedule. This game is a perfect scenario for Florida to fix a lot of things offensively. The Gators will be healthy and in front of a capacity home crowd against a team that is rebuilding under a first-year head coach. Florida should have no trouble moving the ball on Tennessee’s defense. It all comes down to whether Florida’s drives end with points or turnovers. We will find out a lot about where this Gator squad is mentally during the first quarter.

Losing to Miami really shook the confidence of Gator fans and the feeling is palpable coming into this Tennessee game. It’s like after you go through a really tough breakup with a girlfriend. You know you have to get back into the game at some point, but you’re nervous about putting yourself out there and risking further anguish and embarrassment.

Once bitten, twice shy.

Nobody can ever change what happened two weeks ago. It’s in the history books. The Gators have to put it in the rear view mirror, but at the same time never forget the consequences of being ill prepared and losing focus in the redzone. It will be very interesting to see how quarterback Jeff Driskel responds this week. Driskel threw for a career high 291 yards vs. Miami and hit three different receivers for at least six completions. At times against Miami, Driskel looked more comfortable in a Gator jersey than he ever has. His mistakes, however, were devastating and must be corrected. In Florida’s last three losses, Driskel has accounted for 10 turnovers. His development throughout the season might be the most important aspect of Florida’s quest to get back to Atlanta. Saturday is a perfect opportunity for Florida to gain some of its swagger back. Although a Florida victory won’t guarantee anything like it used to, it would certainly be good start for the Gators to get 2013 back on track.

Game Preview: Miami Hurricanes

GATORS. CANES. NOON. ESPN. SUN LIFE STADIUM.

Quick facts:

  • #12 Florida Gators (1-0) beat Toledo 24-6 last week.
  • Miami Hurricanes (1-0) beat FAU 34-6 last week.
  • Miami leads all time series 28-26.
  • Florida won the last meeting 26-3 (2008) in Gainesville.
  • Miami has won 6 of the last 7 meetings.
  • Florida has not beaten Miami @UM since 1985.
  • The rivalry is called the “Battle for the Seminole War Canoe”

Here it is, Gators. It’s Miami week. And it may be a long time before we can say that again. With no meetings scheduled in the foreseeable future, this is potentially the last time the Gators and Canes will do battle for many years.

And it’s a shame, too. While Miami isn’t considered one of Florida’s most hated rivals these days, it is in fact one of UF’s oldest rivals, dating back to 1938.

So many unforgettable moments in this rivalry…the 1971 “Florida Flop” so UF Quarterback John Reeves could break the NCAA passing record, James Jones’ one-handed catch in the back of the end-zone to beat Miami in 1982, the Sugar Bowl in 2000, and of course the Orange Bowl collapse in 2003 when ex-Gator QB Brock Berlin led Miami on a second half comeback, turning a 33-10 deficit into a 38-33 triumph.

The 2013 edition of Florida-Miami may not have the same storylines as years before, but the stakes are still very high for both teams. Consider, Florida was a preseason top 10 team and feels like it is capable to compete for a championship this season under Will Muschamp. A win Saturday would give the Gators the momentum it needs heading into a brutal SEC schedule. Miami, on the other hand, is looking for a signature win under Al Golden that would bring the Hurricanes back to state supremacy. It would be an incredible feat for Golden to beat the Gators only two years removed from the Nevin Shapiro scandal.

Reports say that Sun Life Stadium will be sold out and that Miami is encouraging its fans to participate in a white-out. You think UM fans are fired up for this one? I would guess that out of the 75,000 fans that pack Sun Life Stadium, around 20-25,000 will be in Gator blue with 50,000+ in white. It should be a beautiful scene for college football.

KEYS TO THE GAME

The Gators are a battle tested SEC power football team. UF should thrive in this situation because it has been here before. The Gators won @Texas A&M, @Tennessee, and @FSU last year. This is nothing new at all. However, Miami is a much improved football team from last year and absolutely has the talent to beat the Gators. For Florida to beat Miami it must:

  • Protect the football. Florida was so successful last year because its turnover ratio was one of the best in the country. If Miami can’t force turnovers, it means that the Canes will almost certainly have to drive 70+ yards to put the ball in the endzone. Kyle Christy will be huge punting for the Gators. He must pin Miami deep every chance he gets.
  • Make redzone trips = TD’s!! Florida has a shaky place kicking situation with Freshman Austin Hardin, who missed an easy field goal last week. When Florida gets the ball deep into Miami territory, it needs to cap those trips with touchdowns because field goals are not a sure thing anymore with the departure of Caleb Sturgis. Florida will have starting RB Matt Jones back this week and should be able to pound the ball across the goal line. Mack Brown proved last week that he is also a dependable RB. Florida needs to utilize all of its play makers in goal-to-go situations. Look for QB Jeff Driskel to make a lot of plays with his legs on read options and bootlegs. Trey Burton is also a versatile weapon in the redzone.
  • Force Stephen Morris to beat you. Morris threw for over 3,000 yards last year and was considered a dark horse by some to compete for the Heisman trophy this season. Morris, however, looked somewhat uncomfortable last week against FAU and did not play very well. Miami RB Duke Johnson is the X-Factor for the Miami offense because Johnson has the ability to score every time he sees the ball. Florida must focus on shutting down Johnson, and force Morris to win the game with his arm. The Gators might have the best secondary in the country, and Ronald Powell along with Dante Fowler will be foaming at the mouth to pound Morris to the turf.
  • Don’t lose your cool. Miami is good enough to pull off an explosive play against the highly touted UF defense. If Duke Johnson rips off a 60 yard TD, or Morris completes a deep ball, no biggie! Florida must stick to its game plan at all costs. Don’t get into a shootout with Miami. Pound the football with Jones and Brown, loosen up that Miami defense, and the opportunity to take a couple shots down field will come. But once again, don’t get into a pass happy shootout with Miami. Dictate the game offensively similar to the FSU game last year. Miami will wear down in the second half.

I think it’s a pretty simple formula for Florida. The Gators are a more experienced team, and honestly, more talented and better coached. I feel like as long as the Gators don’t give the game away to Miami, then they should be able to leave Sun Life Stadium with a win. However, I don’t think it’s as simple as lining up and playing football. Miami will be fired up. They’ve been circling this one since Summer. Miami certainly has the athletes to compete with Florida and I would not be surprised if this game comes down to the 4th quarter. We all know that anything can happen in college football, especially in rivalry games.

PREDICTION

I think it’ll be great for the Gators to have Matt Jones and LB Antonio Morrison back. I look for the combination of Jones and Mack Brown to wear down the Miami defense and open up chances for Jeff Driskel to spread the ball around. The Hurricane defense gave up over 32 points per game to BCS Conference schools last year, and only held 4 opponents under 30 points the whole season. Offensively, Miami will probably move the ball here and there on the Gator D, but Florida has one of the best redzone defenses in the country and will not give up more than 1 or 2 touchdowns. The Gators will hold Duke Johnson to under 100 yards rushing.

GATORS: 27 HURRICANES: 16