For at least a week you can pack away those fears you might have had about the Florida Gators going on the road to face Kentucky with a brand new starting quarterback and a defense minus Dominique Easley. Tyler Murphy passed the next test on the progression he will go through in transitioning from career backup to starting quarterback. The defense might have missed Easley but even without the star nose tackle, it was as mean and nasty as ever. Florida (3-1, 2-0 SEC) might not have beaten Kentucky (1-3, 0-1 SEC) worse than Saturday night’s 24-7 final margin at Commonwealth Stadium even with Driskel and Easley in the lineup because the game plan probably wouldn’t have been much different.
Murphy did just fine directing an offense that while certainly efficient, didn’t look a whole lot different than what the Gators have been doing the past two years. Emphasis was on controlling the ball, grinding out first downs and playing keep away to help out the defense. Florida held the ball for 38:09, rang up 402 total yards while running the ball 45 times for 246 yards and put up four scores (three touchdowns and a field goal) in four trips into the red zone.
About the only thing missing from the defense was Easley’s signature dancing in between plays. Otherwise, it was business as usual for the SEC’s best defense. Kentucky managed only 173 total yards, only 98 after its initial drive of the game when a Florida special teams goof allowed the Wildcats to get into the end zone. Kentucky ran for 48 yards and had 125 passing on 26 attempts. That’s 4.8 per attempt, a figure that is almost always associated with losing efforts.
So maybe it wasn’t sexy. It didn’t have to be. All the Gators had to do was stick to a game plan on offense and playing gap-sound, assignment football on defense. As long as they stuck to the script there was no way Kentucky was going to win this game and that 17-point margin might as well have been 80 because there was absolutely no way the Wildcats were going to move the ball well enough to overcome that deficit.
If there were any nerves for Murphy they would have shown in the passing game, but he went 13-13 out of the box and finished 15-18 for 156 yards with a nice strike over the middle for 12 yards to Trey Burton for Florida’s second touchdown of the game. On the opening drive – a 13-play, 93-yard touchdown grinder that ate 7:47 off the clock – Murphy was 3-3 for 21 yards passing and added another 17 on his only carry.
“Right from the opening drive, they kind of set the tone of what the night was going to be like,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops lamented in his post game press conference.
About the only glaring mistake Murphy made was a third quarter interception on a pass he telegraphed into the flat. He knew he shouldn’t have made that throw the moment it left his hands because Kentucky’s Joe Forrest was sitting on the route and probably thought he had a pick six except that Murphy ran him down and knocked him off his feet. The way Murphy hustled after Forrest, you could tell he wasn’t about to let a mistake he made give the Wildcats a touchdown they shouldn’t have had.
Help for Murphy came in the form of an offensive line that rarely missed assignments. They spent the night bullying that Kentucky front seven, beating them up and battering them into submission, which is what you expect of a veteran unit. Given holes to run through that were sometimes big enough for a truck, Matt Jones did the rest, powering his way to 176 yards on 28 carries for one touchdown. His entire 2012 production was 52 carries, 275 yards and three touchdowns. He might have gone the distance for a 79-yard touchdown except that Quinton Dunbar tripped him up while trying to make a block at the Kentucky 12, 67 yards beyond the original line of scrimmage.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that what the Gators were doing with Murphy and Jones was playing defense with the offense. Florida punter Kyle Christy, who’s been in a slump the first three games, will have to wait a week to regain his consistency because he didn’t punt even once. On seven of Florida’s eight possessions (the Gators took a knee to end the first half) the Gators moved the ball at least 29 yards.
That helped negate the loss of Easley, not that the defense needed all that much help. Florida opened up in a 3-4 and stayed with it most of the game, a scheme designed to clog the middle and free the linebackers to clean up on the inside. Seeing there was no room between the tackles, Kentucky tried to take it wide and that didn’t work either.
“They make it very difficult to run the ball,” Stoops said. “They outnumber you all the time with big, physical dudes. Then you have to beat them outside. They have some very good talent outside. You saw in one‑on‑one situations, they made most of them. So they put you in a bind where you have to make plays and you have to beat them.”
With nowhere to run, the Wildcats had to rely on a dink and dunk passing game because there was rarely time to set up and throw. Florida finished with five sacks, two by Dante Fowler and 1.5 by Jonathan Bullard, and there was constant pressure off the edge from a very active Ronald Powell. On one of the few occasions that Kentucky quarterback Maxwell Smith had time to throw freshman Vernon Hargreaves picked him off in the end zone.
There were just no plays to be had by Kentucky. Of the 47 plays the Wildcats ran against the Florida defense, only five went for 10 or more yards. If not for that special teams goof that allowed Joe Mansour to run 25 yards for a touchdown on a fake field goal, the Gators would have pitched a shutout. On that scoring drive, Kentucky’s first of the game that covered 75 yards, the Wildcats got inside the Florida 30. It was the only time the whole game the Wildcats got that close.
It wasn’t glamorous. It wasn’t exciting. It didn’t have to be as long as it was efficient. There were changes in the game plan to accommodate Murphy and the defense but they were subtle and the Gators adapted to them easily. The competition will step up a notch or two next week in The Swamp when Arkansas comes calling, but that won’t necessitate changing much. As long as the Gators stay efficient on offense and gap-sound on defense, they’ll do just fine.