Posted: 12:01 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 22, 2013
By Andy Hutchins
Florida beat Tennessee, 31-17, on Saturday. You can relive the game through our Game Thread. The Rapid Recap is our comprehensive first look before a second full viewing of each Gators game. It will usually run within 24 hours of the game's end.
Florida has gotten rather good at overcoming the adversity on the field in the last three years. The Gators' unquestioned starting quarterback has now gone down in all three of Will Muschamp's seasons at the helm, thanks to Jeff Driskel's season-ending injury against Tennessee.
But Tyler Murphy did Jacoby Brissett one better as Driskel's injury replacement: He rallied Florida back against an SEC foe, even if that foe was a bad Tennessee team, and kept hope alive for a Gators season that looked rather hopeless just minutes into Saturday's showdown.
Florida's defense started Saturday's game in a bind, thanks to Kyle Christy mishandling a snap and giving Tennessee a first possession in the Gators' red zone. It forced a fumble on Florida's second play from scrimmage. Then, after Tennessee scored on defense and Florida punted back to the Vols on its third drive, Florida's defense forced another fumble to give the Murphy-led offense a chance to get points on the board. By the time Brian Poole collected the Gators' third takeaway of the day on an interception that Michael Taylor really should have had, it was clear that Florida's defense was not going to let Florida lose without the fight of its life — which made me supremely confident in the Gators' chances of victory as soon as Solomon Patton took a screen pass from Murphy 52 yards to paydirt early in the second quarter. Florida would extend its lead to 10 points later in the first half, and that fantastic defense never let it get shaved to less than a touchdown.
Remember that Will Muschamp's first words in a press conference after losing to Miami were "We gave them way too much momentum early in the game, defensively." On Saturday, the Gators spent their defensive possessions taking momentum from Tennessee, and giving an offense that needed room to breathe a lot of it. Florida forced turnovers — forced them — on Tennessee's first three offensive possessions, choking off a first drive that began in the red zone and giving Florida's offense the ball with the field position necessary to score its first 10 points. After forcing punts on Tennessee's fourth and fifth offensive possessions — both lost yardage; the fifth began at Florida's 38 and ended at Florida's 47 — the Gators snagged a fourth takeaway on the Vols' sixth drive, setting up the Gators' second offensive touchdown of the day.
The final tally for Florida's first half of defense: Four takeaways facilitating 17 points; four drives of negative yardage produced, compared to three of positive yardage; zero points allowed; two drives beginning in Florida territory that were snuffed out (both went backwards); just six net yards of field position yielded; and 31 yards of total offense given up. I realize Florida was playing Tennessee, and that Tennessee started redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman — who was benched for good reason in the second half — but Florida playing a better half of defense this season than its first half on Saturday is unfathomable, because the Gators clearly needed a phenomenal performance from the get-go, and got one that trumped even my rosiest hopes.
The defense would go on to allow 10 points in the second half, as Justin Worley fared far better than Peterman and Florida's secondary showed signs of weakness, but it had done its duty by then, and still managed to pull in two more interceptions and denied a fourth down try in the fourth quarter for good measure. (I mentioned this on Twitter, but Florida got picks from Darious Cummings and Marcus Maye on Saturday, likely the first time two players from Brevard County made interceptions for the Gators in one game. Count me as one proud Countdown County native.)
This was a third excellent performance from a defense that was expected to take a step back from the elite unit that Florida put together in 2012. Muschamp can be legitimately criticized for many things in his Florida tenure, but the defense he has constructed is fully functional and fearsome, and consequently a great joy to watch.
If Tyler Murphy's year had gone as planned, he would have spent a fourth season as a Florida backup without ever throwing a collegiate pass, and gotten a diploma in December without ever playing a truly meaningful snap. Driskel's injury altered that plan irrevocably, and Murphy made good on his opportunity on Saturday, overcoming some early jitters to put on a superb performance as a game manager with flashes of more.
Murphy's first drive ended without points, and could have ended as a three-and-out if not for Murphy scrambling for his life and finding Quinton Dunbar on a desperation throw on third down. Murphy would convert another third down with his legs on the drive, but it stalled out near midfield. Murphy's next snap after it produced a fumble that Florida was fortunate to fall on, which erased my hope for a touchdown on a drive that began at the Tennessee 6, and the next play after that was a dangerous rollout that Murphy had the sense to end with an uncatchable pass into the end zone. Through two drives, Murphy looked like he was going to struggle to move the ball with Florida's offense — Driskel's second drive netted 38 yards of offense after his first one got 15; Murphy's first two drives went 32 yards — and my hopes were that the defense could do enough for Florida to win a low-scoring affair.
Then Murphy threw a simple screen out to Patton, who benefited from a good block by Trey Burton and a bad missed tackle on his touchdown sprint, and the Gators got breathing room. Murphy's next two drives ended in fumbles, but fault an early snap from Jonotthan Harrison and an ill-fated changing of hands by Matt Jones for those; the next three Florida drives all produced rushing touchdowns, one each in the second, third, and fourth quarters, and put Florida up 21 points on a day when its defense had allowed just three through three quarters. By then, Murphy had effectively rallied Florida back and survived a storm of turnovers; that Florida's offense did little afterward, producing just one missed field goal attempt on a drive set up by a pick in Tennessee territory, really didn't matter. Murphy had come in and overcome all the adversity he needed to overcome.
For one day, against a team that I suspect is not particularly good, Murphy was outstanding, good enough to make this The Tyler Murphy Game forevermore. I'm proud of and happy for him for doing that. It will get harder from here, but he and we will always have Tennessee.
I have a problem: I can't say or think about Vernon Hargreaves III without some variation on "fuck" slipping into my speech or thought. It's usually "That motherfucker" or "Fuck, he's good." This probably speaks to my lexicon's limitations more than anything — I'm just so repeatedly awestruck by how good Hargreaves is that I have nothing better to say in the moments after he does things.
But with his Saturday performance — no picks, just two great pass breakups and some blanket coverage in his first start for Florida — now in my rear view, here is some heresy: I think Vernon Hargreaves III may be the best freshman Florida has ever had.
Certainly, he is off to the best start of any freshman on defense in my memory, despite arriving in the summer and missing a week or so of fall camp with an injury. He had two important interceptions in Florida's first two games, and has yielded nothing that I have seen while on the field. And it's not like he's without competition for great freshman seasons just from Florida cornerbacks: Joe Haden and Janoris Jenkins were damn good as rookies, but I don't remember either being quite this good. Hargreaves' better competition for "best Florida freshman ever" honors comes from Percy Harvin and Tim Tebow, only the spark plug and tow truck for the rusty Chevy that was the 2006 Gators offense. I would give the edge to both Harvin and Tebow right now, because we saw a full season from each of them and because of what their team won, but on a pure performance basis, Hargreaves doesn't trail by much.
Hargreaves' talent is immense, thanks to some fantastic quickness and good speed, but he's ahead of the curve as a defender — he may well be Florida's best cover corner at this moment, despite being on a team with multiple future NFL players — because of his knowledge of the position and instincts, which would be rare if he was a fourth-year player. Nope: He's a freshman who has just about two months of Florida football under his belt. That youth makes errors like Hargreaves's bobbled punt excusable; it makes what he has done as a corner incredible.
I urge you to appreciate every snap Hargreaves plays. We'll have VH3 — glorious, great, thrilling VHMF3 — for this year and two more in orange and blue.
With due respect to VH3, Easley will be the most entertaining player to watch on this defense, because of his combination of skill and joie de vivre. Once again, he was quick enough off the snap to disrupt several interior runs, and made just one mistake that I noticed: On a run in the second half that saw him force the runner to change direction despite his blocker expertly moving him such that Easley thought he had no play on the ball, and inadvertently let the runner get by for a few yards. That was it.
Florida can afford errors like that from Easley, who has made them in every year of his Florida career and cut down on them dramatically in the last two, because they come with all the havoc he wreaks up front. And if Toledo, Miami, and Tennessee's offensive lines, all of which have had big, strong interiors, could do nothing more than occasionally slow Easley, he's primed to make havoc his baseline this season.
Fowler had a quiet start to 2013 in Florida's first two games after looking like an absolute terror in what the public saw of fall practice. He brought some of that terror to Tennessee on Saturday, forcing two fumbles (one coming on a sack), recovering one, and recording three tackles for loss that cost Tennessee 15 yards. Florida's faced an uncommonly good set of offensive lines to begin its 2013 season — I would guess at least eight of the 15 lineman that have lined up against Florida will play on Sunday eventually — and has mostly struggled to tally the sacks that this line could put up, but Fowler's big day on Saturday could be the first of many for him and for Gators pass-rushers this season.
Murphy's best throw of the day was a gorgeous dime to Quinton Dunbar down the east sideline on a play that was ruled a catch to the amazement of the crowd. When we saw the replay, it was even more staggering: Dunbar got control of the ball while it was basically out of bounds, and got his back foot in at the last possible second.
I suspect Murphy will produce more moments like that, thanks to his very Chris Leak-esque throwing motion. But you can only remind Florida fans of Chris Leak by sliding (which Murphy did very well) and by completing passes, and Florida's receivers did that on Saturday, too.
Between Driskel and Murphy, Florida QBs attempted just 20 passes on the day, and completed just 11. But receivers caught 10 of those 11 balls and finished with 163 receiving yards. Patton led the way with 73 yards on three catches and Florida's only receiving TD, thanks to his 52-yard catch-and-run, which made up for another drop; Dunbar had 63 yards on four catches, and has now topped 60 yards in three of Florida's last four games; Trey Burton got 21 of his 27 yards on the first play of the game, a gorgeous leaping catch of a slightly overthrown Driskel pass up the middle, and finished with three catches, none in the second half.
That's not fantastic production, and Florida didn't really throw to anyone but those three receivers more than once, but it's good production, and still much, much better than Florida was getting last year. Learning a new quarterback's tendencies, timing, and throwing may make the improvements in the receiving corps harder to see in the next couple of weeks. This crew, though, is much better than any Florida receiving corps since the 2009 team that had future NFLers Riley Cooper and Deonte Thompson around — and as much-maligned as Thompson was, his junior year in 2010 was basically as good as Dunbar's career to date — and we still haven't seen what freshmen Demarcus Robinson and Ahmad Fulwood can really do because of a couple of bad throws by Driskel against Miami, a suspension, and Florida (rightly) going into full grind-it-out mode early on Saturday.
The future is bright at receiver, as it has been since Fulwood and Robinson joined Florida's 2013 recruiting class. The present not being dim is new.
There are more words to be written about Big, Dumb Will Muschamp Football in big-picture pieces this week, but they can wait: For today, the most important thing to know is that Florida doesn't have a lot of other options for this year. And yet Florida just won an SEC game with its starting quarterback out for about 50 of 60 minutes, its most talented running back nowhere near 100 percent, and its most talented wide receiver suspended.
This compilation of ugly tells the story well, but if Florida is undeniably a merchant of ugly offense, it should be noted that the Gators also do a very fine job of breaking the other team's toys, too, and turning The Swamp and other stadiums into graveyards for offense. The last home game in which Florida looked great at moving the ball was ... Alabama's visit in 2011, when Florida looked good for a half before an injury to its starter? That's a long time for a team most beloved by its fans for pyrotechnics and derring-do to go without showcasing what many think of as its quintessence.
But Florida also hasn't lost a home game since 2011. If there is ugly, at least at home, it has always, always been on both sides since the beginning of 2012. I don't know if we can rely on that to last forever, it may last until Florida State's Jameis Winston-led circus comes to town in November. And if we can't have beauty, appreciating what we do have might be a more satisfying course of action than bemoaning what we don't.
We spent the offseason wondering whether Antonio Morrison was going to be the next immature young man to wash out of football while playing for the Gators. From what I've seen of him this fall, Morrison's maturity on the field is every bit as impressive as his immaturity in Gainesville this summer was dismaying.
Morrison handles calls and alignments, and is constantly communicating with his linebackers and linemen. As quarterbacks of the defense go, he's exactly what you want, and he's only in his second year of college football. Morrison had big, Jon Bostic-sized shoes to fill this fall, but he's been able to do that on a mental level so far, and we really haven't seen his physicality just yet because no one has been able to run up the middle on Florida.
Playing in control and leading this defense counts for plenty, though.
He may only be Florida's best running back because Matt Jones still appears to be tentative and rusty after a viral infection I am beginning to think was downplayed even as Muschamp spoke of "uncharted waters." He may only be Florida's best runner because Driskel is out and Murphy is a reluctant one. But Mack Brown is now Florida's best runner, and will have one heck of a season if he can continue producing like he has for the Gators.
On Saturday, producing mostly meant running into the pile time and again, and running outside when it was called for; Brown pushed those piles for most of his 86 yards, and carried the ball 24 times without incident. His lack of burst and top-end speed will always be his biggest weakness, but he showed flashes on some of those one-cut runs. He has the dependability of Mike Gillislee in a slightly bigger, less explosive package, and Florida could do far worse at halfback.
I believe tweeted this, about Brent Pease's critics needing something for their crow, midway through the third quarter, after Florida scored to go up 24-10. That was effectively the game-winning touchdown, though Florida tacked on another after it, and it was the third one of four on the day that came despite the Gators not having a single quarterback who had previously thrown a pass in college available from the moment they went down 7-0.
You can whine about Pease's playcalling getting too cute and too conservative from time to time, but Florida's offensive miscues were, for the second straight week, more about execution than design. None of the three Florida turnovers — Florida has now committed nine on the year — was even remotely because of a bad decision by Pease, and Pease smartly kept things basic in the red zone when Florida threatened to deposit more rounds in its feet early on. Pease's call on the Patton screen was excellent, and Murphy led touchdown drives of 79 and 84 yards in the second half with the help of balanced and patient playcalling.
Making sure that success continues after one adrenaline-fueled victory with less than Florida's full complement of players is going to be one hell of a challenge for Pease for the rest of the year. (We'll also never know what Pease's full gameplan for this game was, though based on Florida opening with Loucheiz Purifoy on a toss and Driskel firing down the middle to Burton, I think it might've been fun.) But Saturday's scenario was a challenge, too, and Pease helped Florida's offense rise to it.
I'm so tired of defending Florida's attendance that I barely care about whether Saturday's game was a sellout (attendance was listed at 90,004; there were not 90,000 people in attendance) or whether fans were in their seats for the opening kickoff (thousands who filtered in after it weren't). Those fights are almost not worth having at this point.
And if Florida crowds can make up for what they lack in number and punctuality with enthusiasm to match Saturday's throng, all will be well. That was a live, raucous crowd that took visceral pleasure from what Florida's defense did, and gave all the noise (I've heard The Swamp louder maybe five times, though I missed every game from 2006 to 2008 but one) that the defense asked of it. I was part of TY-LER MUR-PHY chants in the student section, including a loud one in the third quarter, and The Wave, started just a row behind me and a few seats to my left, died a swift and rightful death.
This wasn't a vintage Florida crowd, I don't think, but it was a very good one. If Florida fans can repeat this four more times this year (...they won't, but I can hope!), I will be very, very pleased with the folks who actually come to the games.
Florida committed six penalties, but cost itself just 44 yards. One of those penalties — Michael Taylor batting Hargreaves's muffed punt out of bounds — was actually smart, and the targeting penalty on Brian Poole, valid under the rules of the game or not, is the product of a bad rule, and just the residue of how Florida's defense plays. The illegal touching penalty on Dunbar may or may not have been valid; I didn't see a replay to see if he had been previously pushed out. This was a disciplined effort.
On one hand, Jeff Driskel's broken whatever-it-is is a sad, sad thing. No injury in sports is ever happy — not one, not ever — and Driskel's comes at the tail end of a rough nine-month stretch that got him unfairly belittled by awful fans who overreacted to poor recent performances. In Driskel's first 11 games as Florida's starter (including the Bowling Green game in which he was the de facto starter), Florida went 10-1, knocking off Texas A&M; and Florida State on the road and LSU and South Carolina at home. Driskel was the main reason that Florida beat Vanderbilt on the road last year, and the best player on the field in Florida's comeback win at Tennessee. He did everything his coaches asked, and though he mad costly mistakes against Georgia, the benefits of Driskel far outweighed the costs.
Those benefits still outweighed the costs over Driskel's last four starts, but the Gators have gone 2-2 in them, and Driskel had little to do with one of those two wins. I thought Driskel played fairly well against Louisville, and really do think that first pick was on Andre Debose; I also thought Driskel was pretty good on the plays that did not produce turnovers in Florida's first three games this year.
But those mistakes were ruinous for Florida and unforgivable for many fans, and so Driskel's injury is not the death blow to legitimate, if cautious, championship expectations for some that it is for me. I get that. I can accept that. I'm still feel really bad for Driskel, though, given how well he represents Florida, how hard he's worked to be Florida's best and starting quarterback, and how good a player he is. We have never seen Driskel at his absolute best for more than a game — Tennessee giveth, and Tennessee taketh, I suppose — and there's a chance, however remote, that we've already seen Driskel's final play for Florida, which would be a great shame.
Remember this, though: Driskel is part of a team and a program that has had an uncommon number of injuries to superstar talents over the last few years. Dominique Easley, Ronald Powell, and Andre Debose were copiously talented players lost to season-ending injury before Driskel became one yesterday, and Florida's had other very good players (Jelani Jenkins, Cody Riggs, Neiron Ball) laid low by major injuries under Will Muschamp. Those players who have already returned, to a man, have been diligent about their rehabilitations, and done what is necessary to come back as good or better than they were before.
I have faith that Driskel will, too.
One of the bad things about Florida dominating this game from the moment after Driskel's pick until the fourth quarter is that we really don't know how bad Tennessee is. The Vols certainly looked better on defense than they did in getting vivisected by Oregon, but Florida's not exactly good on offense, and that offense, led by a very green backup quarterback, put up 31 points on the Vols despite settling for a field goal on a drive that began with goal to go and missing another.
Tennessee's offense was even worse: Peterman looked like a guy making his first career start against a top-five defense on the road, and the Vols were probably lucky that his damage was limited to three turnovers; Worley moved Tennessee in the second half, but threw ducks on both of his picks, and got its best plays on two coverage busts. The Tennessee running game gained 66 yards and was abandoned in favor of a passing game that produced 14 completions on the day far too early in the first half.
The Vols could have been up 14-0 with less than six minutes off the clock in the first quarter and Florida's starting quarterback on crutches — Tennessee scoring on its first offensive drive would not have precluded Driskel making his fateful mistake, right? — and had a chance to add to that 7-0 lead after Florida's first Murphy-helmed drive stalled. Instead, Tennessee just kept blowing toes off, condeming itself to a loss that can't even feel like a moral victory. (I imagine Tennessee fans know a lot about which moonshines work best for coping at this point.)
While that Tennessee futility is all well and good as an opportunity to do Nelson Muntz's laugh, though, it likely either tells us a lot less about Florida than we think or devalues what Florida did in winning this game. I think reading too much into this win would be a mistake.
Florida's defense has been very, very good this year, allowing just four touchdowns through three games and just two drives of more than 50 yards. But the play of its safeties in coverage has been an issue in the last two games, with Maye blowing an assignment that gave Miami its second touchdown, Riggs making errors leading to touchdowns in both of the last two games.
Riggs's errors are the most easily correctable and the most forgivable, because they've come with him playing nickel back, not safety, near the end zone, and the most logical fix for that is playing another defensive back at nickel back. Florida didn't do that against Miami for whatever reason, and Riggs was beaten by a perfect throw because he made one wrong step in coverage, which is understandable. Florida didn't do that against Tennessee because it really didn't have another trusted defensive back to slide to nickel — Marcus Roberson wasn't playing, Brian Poole had been ejected, and Purifoy had been injured — and Riggs made what seemed like a bigger error to me by getting lost on a route.
Now, if we're being fair and not just kind to Riggs, he was a corner and a nickel back before he was a safety, and should know better. But Florida has options there.
Florida also has options at safety: Maye's scarce playing time against Tennessee, mostly coming in late relief of Jaylen Watkins, likely means that his play is going to be corrected over time in practice, and that Watkins moving over is the better short-term fix.
On the other hand, I'm not entirely sure if Florida has options for Purifoy, picked on against Miami and beaten badly by a wheel route on Saturday, other than hoping he learns or moving him to offense. He's not a bad cornerback by any means, and it does not feel likely that he'll get toasted much this year, but his coverage skills remain elementary, a frustrating problem for a guy who has no physical limitations at the position.
Travaris Robinson has been his (very good) coach for three years, and Purifoy's struck me as a good and attentive practice player. It's possible that Purifoy splitting time between corner and wide receiver — which he did in the spring, even if we don't know for certain that he did it in the fall — has stalled his development at corner, but he's got three years in the system, so I hesitate to say it has.
Purifoy's too talented to keep off the field, even with Roberson and Hargreaves looking like Florida's two best corners, but I'm unclear on what exactly he does on defense that other players can't do, and he certainly appears to have talents the offense could use. And, well...
Here is something I never thought I would write as recently as the beginning of August: You know who Florida's offense missed on Saturday? Valdez Showers.
Showers gave Florida a boundary running game in its first two games, with speed that neither Brown nor this version of Jones can match; Purifoy approximated it on the first play of the game, then was never seen on offense again, and he's too valuable and injury-prone to use as a running back more than sparingly. Similarly, Patton's utility as a receiver probably makes one sweep a game his optimal usage as a runner.
But we haven't seen Purifoy's speed unleashed at wide receiver, haven't seen a young wideout step up, saw far less unbalanced line usage on Saturday, and haven't seen all of the gadgetry Pease has for the ground game. I realize that this was actually a vanilla gameplan that was designed on the fly to protect Murphy and give Florida a win by any means, but this version of the Florida offense might not be good enough against teams better than Tennessee.
Much as I do feel bad for Driskel in the wake of his injury and the reaction to it — about which more in a moment — his pick-six was a worse decision than any he made against Miami, and he probably should have tried, oh, any course of action other than throwing a ball into coverage when he could get nothing but his arm into it on that play.
That was the only really bad turnover, of the three committed — bad snaps happen, and fumble recovery is luck; Jones shouldn't have switched hands on his catch, but, again, fumble recovery is luck — but Florida put the ball on the ground five times, and was, again, lucky to have recovered three, even if Taylor's heads-up play produced one of the "recoveries." And it was really six balls on the carpet if you count Christy mishandling the snap on his first punt attempt, which gave Tennessee a turnover on downs.
Florida won, despite more of its best efforts in carelessness, because it has a phenomenal defense that covers beautifully for errors. And, importantly, because it got lucky.
Speaking of luck: Driskel's bad luck is not something to celebrate. The pain of an athlete's injury — any athlete, much less a team's most important one, much less your own team's most important one — is not something to celebrate. You can be proud of how Murphy stepped up in Driskel's absence, and you can be honest in saying you feel better about Florida with Murphy instead of Driskel at the helm, but, at least here at Alligator Army, we will not tolerate mixing those things with joy that a young man got injured while playing a game that is inherently dangerous, and I've already had to ban two people who have done that from our comments section.
Driskel will recover, and will probably be just fine to return to playing football at some point. But while it is unfortunate that he got hurt, and heartening that I only learned of reveling in his injury after the game and on Twitter— suggesting, I'm hoping, that the reveling has more to do with assholes at a remove believing their dislike of Driskel was vindicated and rewarded, which seems marginally better than base heartlessness — it is embarrassing and shameful that there are sports fans who let how they feel about sports allow them to take joy in a human being's pain.
Driskel's reaction to his injury, at least, is nice to see:
Thankful for another day.— Jeff Driskel (@jeffdriskel) September 22, 2013
That's what I saw. What'd you see? I'll be in the comments all day.