Okay, so it was the Tennessee offense that the third-ranked Florida defense smothered Saturday afternoon. They go up tempo and run all the cool sets but it’s not like they’re actually fooling anyone, particularly a defense as sophisticated as the one the Gators threw at them. The Vols managed only one offensive touchdown in 18th-ranked Florida’s 31-17 Southeastern Conference win at The Swamp and it’s highly unlikely they would have gotten that one if the Gators hadn’t been down three players in the secondary due to two injuries and an ejection.
Tennessee managed only 220 total yards – 66 on the ground and 154 passing with 115 of those passing yards in the fourth quarter when the Gators were playing without Marcus Roberson (missed the entire game with a knee injury suffered against Miami), Loucheiz Purifoy (injured his thigh running back a kickoff in the third quarter) and Brian Poole (ejected for a helmet to helmet hit on Brandon Downs on the first play of Tennessee’s lone offensive touchdown drive.
The Gators forced six turnovers, three fumbles and three interceptions. Dante Fowler forced two of the fumbles and one led to an Austin Harden field goal in the first quarter that got the Gators on the board. The first interception by Poole off a deflection by Michael Taylor, led to Florida’s first touchdown. When 310-pound Darious Cummings picked off a pass and rumbled 30 yards with it late in the second quarter, it set up a UF touchdown drive that gave the Gators a 17-7 halftime lead.
That is domination and it took domination on this day because the Gators started out the game the way they ended the Miami game, which is to say they shot themselves in whatever was left of their feet after the Debacle in Dade. Florida’s offense turned the ball over three times in the first half including the first two Gator possessions but the Vols only got six points out of it on at pick six touchdown off a throw that Jeff Driskel should have made a good two seconds earlier.
On Florida’s first possession, punter Kyle Christy let a chin-high snap slide through his hands and the Vols recovered at the UF 13. Two plays later Florida had the ball back when Fowler came off the edge like he was shot out of a gun, blowing by Tennessee right tackle JuWan James to arrive at the exact same time Nathan Peterman tried to hand the ball off to Rajion Neal. Peterman and Neal went flying like bowling pins and Fowler wound up with the ball.
The pick six came on Florida’s second possession. Driskel was under duress from a Tennessee blitz but he held the ball way too long before he launched a pass intended for Trey Burton on a crossing pattern. Burton, who started out in the slot on the right side of the Florida formation, ran all the way across the field and was two steps from the left sideline when the ball finally arrived. Tennessee’s Devaun Stafford had no trouble jumping the route and running the ball back 62 yards for a touchdown that spiked the Vols to a 7-0 lead. That was Driskel’s final play of the game as he went down with a broken fibula.
There was a shotgun snap that center Jon Harrison let loose before backup quarterback Tyler Murphy was ready for it late in the first quarter that probably should have been a turnover. Only Murphy’s quick reaction saved that one. Running back Matt Jones fumbled for the second straight game to give the Vols the ball on the Florida 28 but the UF defense bailed the offense out once again when Cummings got in the way of a Peterman pass and picked it off. He had a clear path to the end zone except Dominique Easley clipped his feet during the return.
The defense did give up a field goal to start the third quarter, a 44-yarder set up by bad communication in a zone that resulted in a 27-yard pass play and there was that lengthy drive for the only offensive touchdown when the Gators were playing with a patchwork secondary. Other than that, Tennessee was dominated by a Florida defense that is so good it deserves a great offense.
Through three games the Gators have given up fewer yards (637) than Tennessee’s defense gave up last week to Oregon (687). Florida rushed for more yards against the Vols (215) than Toledo, Miami and Tennessee combined (166) against that UF front seven. If they stay healthy, the Gators could end up as the nation’s best defensive unit.
But as good as they are on defense, the Gators are going to have to get more from their offense than they’ve gotten in the first three games. Murphy had an excellent debut when Driskel went down and the offense actually looked more cohesive but it was against the same Tennessee defense that gave up 59 points to Oregon just a week ago. Murphy did show that he can make the tough throws on a 31-yard sideline fade to Quinton Dunbar and he showed far more elusiveness than Driskel when forced to buy time in the pocket. He will see more sophisticated defenses with better athletes in the future, but Murphy showed the kind of poise and decisiveness that Driskel has lacked so far in his Florida career.
Can he maintain that poise and decisiveness next week when he goes on the road as a starting quarterback for the first time? How about the following weeks when he faces the likes of LSU in Baton Rouge and South Carolina in Columbia and Georgia in Jacksonville? He will have to because even a defense as good as Florida’s is going to need a little bit of help and that means avoiding the stupid plays that lose games. If Murphy can do that, the Gators are going to have a shot to win every game the rest of the year.
Understand that Florida coach Will Muschamp won’t ask Murphy to do anything special. Muschamp believes games are won with defense and a sound kicking game. He only asks the offense protect the ball and avoid giving games away. That’s his philosophy and nothing is going to change it. So, it will be Murphy’s job to manage games and make plays when he can without risking silly turnovers.
Could Murphy become the 2013 version of Kerwin Bell? Bell was that unknown quarterback who had never taken a snap in a game before injury thrust him into a starter’s role in 1984. All he did was respond by taking the Gators to a 9-1-1 record and an SEC title (stripped later by a vote of SEC presidents because of UF’s NCAA sanctions) after taking over for Dale Dorminey, who tore an ACL a week before the first game of the season. Bell wasn’t asked to win games, just manage them, don’t turn the ball over (only four picks) and take an occasional shot down the field (17 TDPs) when teams stacked the line against the run. It sounds quite a bit like what will be asked of Murphy.
Tyler Murphy can rest assured he won’t have to do it alone. A defense that’s as good as any in the nation will have his back.