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.