NASHVILLE -- Quarterback Jeff Driskel and the Gators did not complete a pass in the second half of Saturday’s game. They didn’t need to.
In another arrival game, Driskel made a statement with his legs and pulled Florida from potential defeat to its sixth consecutive victory. He rushed for a school-record 177 yards and scored three touchdowns on just 11 attempts to break Tim Tebow’s previous record of 166 yards against Ole Miss in 2007, with the last a dagger in the heart of Vanderbilt’s comeback attempt.
With Florida leading by only a touchdown late in the fourth quarter, Driskel kept the ball on a read-option run and found a crease on the right side of the defense, scampering untouched and outrunning defensive backs 70 yards down the sideline for the clinching score.
“[Defensive backs] definitely don’t expect for me to run by them, so kind of keep that a little secret,” Driskel said after the victory. “If I get a crease, I expect to be able to take advantage of it.”
He got plenty of creases Saturday night, as the fourth-ranked Gators (6-0, 5-0 Southeastern Conference) held on to defeat the Commodores 31-17. And without Driskel’s legs and record-breaking performance, it’s likely Florida’s Cinderella run would have come to a disappointing end.
The Gators came out flat, giving up a touchdown on the Commodores’ second series when quarterback Jordan Rodgers found Jordan Matthews in the back corner of the end zone on a perfectly thrown ball with pressure in his face from two defenders. Florida struggled to move the ball in the quarter, punting on its first three drives.
“A game isn’t won in the first quarter,” UF linebacker Jon Bostic said.
That’s something that this UF team has proven time and again this season, coming from behind now in four of its six victories.
The Gators came alive late in the half, executing two scoring drives of more than 10 plays — the first capped by Driskel’s first touchdown run, a 37-yard dash down the left sideline on another zone-read play — and holding the Commodores (2-4, 1-3) to 6 yards of total offense in the second quarter.
“His legs create a lot of things for our offense, and we’ve got to continue to use that and create some other things,” UF coach Will Muschamp said of Driskel.
But the game changed after halftime, as penalties (10 total flags for 80 yards) and injuries began to mount and create problems for Florida. Playing without three starting offensive linemen and two key starters on defense, the Gators showed some weaknesses in the second half, allowing the Commodores to march down the field in 16 plays to open the third quarter.
The defense bowed its neck at the end of the drive, blocking a field-goal attempt and putting the ball back in the hands of the offense. After what appeared to be a disappointing three-and-out situation, Muschamp called for a fake punt on fourth-and-5 from the UF 43. Wide receiver Solomon Patton took a handoff from up-man Trey Burton on a jet sweep and blazed down the left sideline for 54 yards before he was knocked out at the 3.
“I felt good about it all week,” Muschamp said of the fake call. “We’ve had it in for a couple weeks and been practicing a lot and just got tired of practicing it, just wanted to run it.”
A holding call backed them up, but Driskel did the rest, taking the ball in untouched from 13 yards out to put the Gators ahead 18-7. On a night he scored three touchdowns on the same play by using sheer athleticism, Driskel tried to deflect as much credit as possible.
“Holes were opening up because they were keying in on [running back Mike] Gillislee, and we were getting great perimeter blocking. I kind of just walked in on some of them,” he said.
After the teams traded punts, Bostic blasted through the line of scrimmage to sack and strip Rodgers, and Florida opened the fourth quarter with a field goal to make it 21-7. But Vanderbilt wouldn’t lay down, answering with an 11-play, 75-yard drive that culminated with a touchdown run by running back Zac Stacy. It was the first fourth-quarter points allowed by UF this season, but the score could have been prevented as safety De’Ante Saunders picked off Rodgers on the drive but it was called back because of a defensive holding penalty.
“We’ve got to coach better and play better in those situations, and that’s what we plan on doing,” Muschamp said. “I’m very pleased with the win but also very cautiously optimistic about how we played [Saturday].”
The optimism has to come from the play of Driskel and the defense. Florida allowed just two touchdowns in six red-zone trips, including a crucial stop to force a field goal with 2:35 remaining.
Instead of trying an onside kick, Vanderbilt squibbed it, and Driskel took the first play 70 yards down the right sideline for the clinching score.
“We kept running really the same play. They didn’t really make adjustments, so we kept going to it,” Driskel said, adding that he is hoping people keep underestimating his speed. “Sometimes it seems they don’t take as good of angles on me. Hopefully, they keep doing the same thing.”