For a brief moment, it looked like the Gators from 2010. Jeff Demps returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, but it was negated by a penalty. John Brantley moved the offense right down the field and then a snap over his head killed the drive and forced the Gators to settle for a field goal.
But only for a brief moment.
After the opening drive, Chris Rainey and the Gators’ offense started firing on all cylinders in front of 88,708 Florida faithful, scoring touchdowns on the next three drives to help No. 22 Florida (1-0) knock off Florida Atlantic (0-1) 41-3.
“I thought we did some positive things in tonight’s game,” coach Will Muschamp said. “I thought John Brantley played really well tonight. Charlie Weis does a phenomenal job putting together and coaching our offense.”
Brantley settled in and threw for 160 yards and a touchdown in the first half on 15-21 passing. His play, along with some nifty running from Demps and Rainey, helped Florida get out to a 24-0 lead.
Rainey caught a 14-yard pass midway through the first quarter to put Florida up 10-0. Demps struck later on a 35-yard run on the first play of the second quarter.
Rainey added his second touchdown of the game midway through the second quarter on a 14-yard run, spinning out of a tackle around the left sideline and sprinting behind Jon Halapio to the end zone to put the Gators up 24-0.
“His first cut is so explosive,” Xavier Nixon said of Rainey. “His lateral movement and explosiveness out the cut, he stays low. I’ve never seen anybody cut like that.”
On the night, Rainey rushed for 79 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries, while catching six passes for 67 yards and a touchdown. Demps finished with a game-high 105 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries.
After cruising to the early lead, Muschamp decided to give true freshman Jeff Driskel a series to get his feet wet.
“We needed Jeff to get those reps,” Muschamp said. I look at the big picture, and it’s a long season. I didn’t want to throw him out there a few weeks in and not have any experience out there in this game atmosphere.”
The true freshman made a couple nice plays with his feet before throwing an interception on a overthrown ball across the middle.
Brantley came back in to close the half for Florida. He finished with 229 passing yards with one touchdown and two interceptions on 21-30 passing.
“The most impressive throw of the night, I can’t remember who he threw it to, it was over on our sideline, to convert a third down,” Muschamp said. “He got hit right in the chops when he was getting rid of it, and he stood in there and took a big hit. Actually did that two times through the night.
“Very pleased with how he directed the offense, got us in the right runs, got us in the right protections, took the ball to the right spots.”
The senior, who was harshly criticized for his performance during an 8-5 2010 season, looked more comfortable and confident in the pocket, even though he threw two interceptions on the night.
“We played a great game,” Brantley said. “Confidence level is high right now. We’ve just got to start tomorrow getting ready for the next opponent.”
Florida got off to a great start in the second half, after Florida Atlantic was stopped and forced to punt.
Solomon Patton came around the right side of the formation and blocked the punt, allowing Rainey to scoop it up and run down the left sideline for a touchdown to put Florida ahead 31-3.
The touchdown made Rainey the first Florida player since 1996 to score a touchdown three different ways. He also became just the third player in the nation to record a rushing, receiving and return touchdown since 1996.
“I love special teams, especially the punt block,” Rainey said. “We work on that every day, all day. That’s our favorite phase of the team, so you’re going to see a lot of blocks.”
Demps added a 20-yard touchdown on the ground early in the fourth quarter to put the Gators up 38-3.
The Florida defense also came out looking primed and ready under Muschamp’s watchful eye. A dominant push up front helped Florida hold the Florida Atlantic rushing attack to just 30 yards.
Sophomore Dominique Easley led the charge, forcing the Owls’ offensive line back repeatedly and wreaking havoc in the backfield.
“Very pleased that we were able to get some edge pressure,” Muschamp said. “It’s hard to get pressure against people like this as far as their pocket movement is concerned. For the most part, I thought we did a decent job.”
Linebacker Jelani Jenkins finished with a team-high five tackles, while Jaye Howard and Ronald Powell each chipped in a sack. As a team, the Gators finished with 11 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
Florida’s season opener was also a chance for several true freshmen to make their first appearance in the Swamp.
“[Roberson] did great,” fellow starting cornerback Cody Riggs said. “He didn’t let up any plays. I thought for a freshman to come in and play like that, that’s very impressive.”
While Florida’s players and coaches were happy to get their first win of the season in convincing fashion, they know they will face tougher competition in the future.
The Gators ran a stripped-down offense against the Owls, and Rainey said Florida only ran about six plays on offense.
Muschamp would have preferred his team to get a little stiffer test in the opener.
“We certainly didn’t face as much adversity as I would have wanted to tonight,” he said. “I would have liked to have more adversity in the game to have us handle the situations.”
The Gators will regroup after kicking off the Muschamp era in style. Florida will take on UAB next Saturday at 7 p.m., hoping to earn a second win for its head coach.
“I think we need to be realistic here,” Muschamp said. “We’ll face better opponents through the season. But for a first ball game, we need to make some improvements, we need to make some adjustments from a personnel standpoint after the film. We’ll certainly do that.”
Still, for a season opener the coach was optimistic. There were mistakes, but it was a far cry from the performance Florida had in the season opener a year ago.
That alone will go a long way to restoring Brantley’s confidence, which is the real key to the 2011 season.
“We’re going to enjoy the win for a little bit,” Brantley said. “Then starting tomorrow we’ve got to get ready for Alabama-Birmingham.”