GAINESVILLE -- For all the comedic fodder Florida and Tennessee offered up in their goof-filled opening half Saturday, this moment had very serious undertones for the Gators.
Long after the Vols celebrated Devaun Swafford’s pick-six for the game’s opening points, junior quarterback Jeff Driskel stayed seated on The Swamp’s turf. He returned to the sideline only long enough to grab a pair of crutches and head to the locker room.
That’s the last you’ll see of him in uniform this season. Broken leg.
The Gators discovered, though, that the situation isn’t necessarily as distressing as it first appeared — backup Tyler Murphy has some tools for this offense.
The redshirt junior recovered from a shaky start to lead the Gators on four touchdown drives, helping UF to a 31-17 romp for their ninth consecutive victory in what used to be one of the Southeastern Conference’s top rivalries.
Murphy, who had never attempted a pass in limited action before Saturday, hit Solomon Patton with a swing pass that went 52 yards for the go-ahead score in the second quarter. He later ran one in himself as the Gators (2-1) took control by scoring on their first two possessions after halftime.
“One man’s misfortunes are another man’s opportunities,” UF coach Will Muschamp said. “[Murphy] is a great example of a guy who showed that when your number is called at the University of Florida, you’d better respond at a high level.”
On a night when former Heisman winner Danny Wuerffel was honored for his election to the College Football Hall of Fame, Murphy wound up throwing for 134 yards. In addition to an 8-for-14 performance with his arm, he also was UF’s No. 2 rusher with 84 yards.
Mack Brown and Matt Jones ran for the Gators’ other two touchdowns, and Austin Hardin added a 23-yard field goal.
“It’s tough for any team to lose their starting quarterback,” Patton said. “Jeff was doing a good job. Now I think Tyler’s going to do a good job for us, too.”
Said Murphy: “It hasn’t really hit me yet, but it’s going to have to hit me soon. We just have to keep getting better, keep on performing.”
Driskel sustained a broken right fibula when a Tennessee defender hit him from behind on his sixth pass of the game. Muschamp said Driskel will undergo surgery Sunday and is lost for the season.
“Jeff is as tough a kid as I’ve been around,” Muschamp said. “When he turned to the sideline and waved [for assistance], I knew it wasn’t good.”
UF’s defense also shined with four interceptions — including one from defensive tackle Darious Cummings on a ball that slipped from Nathan Peterman’s hand — and two fumble recoveries, helping ease the situation as the offense made the transition to having Murphy at the controls.
“It kept us in the ballgame,” Muschamp said. “A lot of us had to catch our breath a little bit. Our guys know they’d better respond when they get in these situations.”
Tennessee (2-2) had hoped for a spark by giving Peterman his first start as a freshman, but couldn’t take advantage of some early UF mistakes. Swafford’s 62-yard interception return notwithstanding, the Vols turned the ball over on their first three possessions.
Peterman completed just 4 of 11 passes on the evening for a measly 5 yards, though in fairness three potential completions were dropped. Justin Worley came on after halftime, throwing for 149 yards and a 19-yard touchdown to Pig Howard.
“Everything is about creating your own breaks,” UT coach Butch Jones said. “We create a great play and then we turn it back over to them, and you just can’t do that.”
Murphy admitted to some early nerves, including taking the snap on the face mask in one instance. The touchdown throw to Patton might have turned his night around.
Patton took a swing pass from Murphy and scooted all the way down the right sideline, using a little stutter-step to elude a defender before hitting the end zone for a 10-7 lead.
“Trey Burton made a great block for me,” Patton said. “I just had to make one person miss and take it to the end zone.”
Said Murphy: “That kind of got my nerves settled and allowed me to play football.”
Just before halftime, Murphy helped UF capitalize on Cummings’ interception with a 40-yard drive that led to Brown’s 2-yard touchdown. After UT cut the score to 17-10 on Michael Palardy’s field goal to open the second half, the Gators used two 11-play touchdown drives to put the game out of reach.
“The first two drives of the third quarter were the offensive keys to the game,” Muschamp said. “Two 11-play drives for 14 points really gook us far.”
Until that final drive, though, the first half was a miscue-filled mess that CBS broadcaster Verne Lundquist graciously suggested “would crack mirrors. It was not pretty to look at.”
In those first 26 1/2 minutes, the two teams combined for six fumbles (four changing possession) and three interceptions, lowlighted by Peterman’s slipped attempt and Gators punter Kyle Christy mishandling the snap after UF’s first drive went three-and-out.
The Vols, though, were quick to show they were no less hamfisted as Neal fumbled it back two plays later on a hit by Dante Fowler Jr. Driskel moved the Gators as far as the UT 41, only to watch in pain as Swafford took home the pick-six for a 7-0 lead.
Tennessee lasted just three plays before Peterman fumbled, setting up Hardin’s 23-yard field goal. Peterman then was victimized by a tipped ball that went off a receiver’s hands and fell to Poole, who gave UF possession at the Vols’ 44.