With a 21-6 halftime lead against South Carolina last season, Coach Will Muschamp shouted into the microphone of Florida Radio Network sideline report Brady Ackerman, “We need to overcome adversity on the field” while on his way to the locker room. Despite the lead, Muschamp was not happy and proof is there for everyone to see on YouTube.
There wasn’t any adversity to to be found on the field in Florida’s 24-7 win over Kentucky in Lexington Saturday night, but there was more than enough to overcome off the field in the week leading to the game.
A week ago, Muschamp had to tell his football team at halftime of the Tennessee game that starting quarterback would need surgery to repair his fibula and would miss the rest of the season. Then, on Tuesday Dominique Easley tore his ACL during practice, ending what had begun as a brilliant senior season.
Just like that, in less than a week the Gators lost their leaders on both sides of the ball.
Since arriving at Florida three years ago, Muschamp has preached a “man up, man down” philosophy, but that saying became more than just words in the past week.
“Very proud of our football team,” Muschamp said Saturday night after the Gators moved to 2-0 in SEC play. “It’s been a long week for us, psychologically and mentally as much as anything. When you go through Jeff’s [Driskel] situation and then Dominique’s [Easley] situation on Tuesday night, they are very frustrating but you can’t always control your circumstances in life but you can control your vision.”
It seemed like a perfect storm for Florida leading into the game. On top of losing a key leader on either side of the ball, the Gators were also facing an opponent that hadn’t beat Florida in 26 years. No player on either roster had ever seen Kentucky beat Florida. The Gators could have felt sorry for themselves and rolled over but instead they put together a very solid performance.
Senior wide receiver Trey Burton talked after the game about dealing with those feelings and coming out ready to play against the Wildcats.
“Extremely tough.” Burton said of losing his two teammates for the season. “It would have been worse if we would have came out with a loss. So we knew we had to go take care of business and get a win for those guys.”
And take care of business they did, dominating the Wildcats in all facets of the game. Matt Jones out-gained the Wildcats all by himself, rushing for 176 rushing yards and adding another 20 on three pass receptions. Kentucky managed only 173 yards all night. Florida gained 402 yards, the third time this season that the Gators have surpassed the 400-yard mark, matching the entire total of 400-plus games from 2012 in less than a fourth of the attempts.
Leading the offensive surge was Tyler Murphy, who in the first start of his career connected on his first 13 passing attempts of the game and finished 15-of-18 for 156 yards and a touchdown. Murphy also carried the ball for 38 more yards and another score on the ground, the second game in a row that Murphy has a throwing and rushing touchdown.
Murphy admitted to being nervous prior to the game but he didn’t let it show on Florida’s tone-setting opening drive. The Wildcats won the toss and elected to defer to the second half, giving the Gators the ball to open up the game. Murphy led a 13-play, 93-yard drive that ended with Matt Jones plunging into the endzone for a 7-0 Gator lead.
“I had a few nerves just like every game.” Murphy said. “I was able to hand off the ball to Matt Jones and throw a swing route to get the offense going. I was then able to settle down. I felt really calm as I had the support of my teammates. They made my job real easy.”
The win on Saturday night makes 27-consecutive wins in a row over Kentucky. It’s a streak that’s hard to grasp for the players and for myself, really. Beating Kentucky is just something that Florida does every year, all they’ve known their entire existence. But, something feels different this year. It doesn’t feel like the Gators dominated an overmatched football team, which is exactly what they did. Instead, it feels like a team that has rallied around fallen brothers to overcome more than just an opponent across the field.
It feels like the Gators have a brand new chip on their collective shoulders, like they are ready for the whole world to know that they are a real team and not just two football players.
Message received, Gators. Message received.