Jeff Driskel grew up on Saturday in Knoxville.
In just the sophomore’s second game as the Gators’ starter and in his first taste of the rivalry with the Volunteers, Driskel looked like anything but the wet-behind-the-ears quarterback he was made out to be. Calmly standing in the pocket in the face of pressure and delivering big-time throws or escaping pressure and creating plays with his feet, Driskel proved he deserves to be the Gators starting quarterback going forward, leading No. 18 Florida (3-0, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) to a 37-20 victory over No. 23 Tennessee (2-1, 0-1 SEC).
This game was his arrival.
“We made a decision to go with Jeff, and so far he has certainly responded very well,” said Florida coach Will Muschamp, who after last week’s road win against Texas A&M said that he didn’t learn anything about Driskel that he didn’t already know. He reaffirmed that sentiment Saturday.
“There’s nothing he does that makes me wonder, ‘Man, I didn’t realize he could do that,’ ” Muschamp said. “He’s a good player and he’s made some big plays for us, and he will continue to do so as the game continues to slow down for him as a young player. And that being said, we need to continue to play well around him.”
The Gators certainly played well around Driskel on Saturday, with wide receiver Frankie Hammond turning a short catch into a 75-yard touchdown, Trey Burton scoring from 80 yards out on a one-play scoring drive and the defense forcing two turnovers on Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray. And for the 10th consecutive time in the series, the team that won the rushing battle won the game. Florida outrushed Tennessee 336-83, winning its eighth in a row against the Volunteers.
But this night and this game was about Driskel.
On the touchdown to Hammond, Driskel correctly read a cornerback blitz and threw into the unoccupied space, completing the pass to Hammond in space with no one around him. For the game, Driskel was 14-of-20 passing for 219 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed for 81 of those 336 yards on eight carries. And a week after taking nine sacks in a win against the Aggies, Driskel was not taken down behind the line of scrimmage in Saturday’s win. Most importantly, he took care of the ball, marking the third consecutive game he has not turned the ball over.
Showing his maturity despite his age, Driskel deflected questions about his performance, instead crediting his teammates.
“I still have a long way to go,” he said, adding that he is not surprised at all at how the team has responded to trailing at the half on the road in consecutive weeks. “I definitely thought we could be a team that put up a lot of points. We have a great defense. … We have playmakers all over the field. The [offensive] line has done a tremendous job to this point. I’m not surprised at all.”
Florida’s 37 points Saturday were the largest total the team has put up in Knoxville since 1984, but for 30 minutes it didn’t seem like that was possible. After a shaky start by both teams, Tennessee controlled the first half for the most part, racking up 220 yards of total offense to take a 14-10 lead at halftime. But the game changed in the third quarter.
Volunteers linebacker A.J. Johnson plunged into the end zone from 2 yards out to put his team ahead 20-13 with 7:33 remaining in the third, but that would be the last time Tennessee sniffed the end zone.
Florida’s next drive stalled thanks to mental miscues, highlighted by Muschamp’s failed decision to fake a punt from the Gators’ territory. Bray and the Volunteers offense took over at the UF 47, but Bray was forced into an intentional-grounding penalty and went three-and-out. The Gators took over at their own 20, and Burton took the next play 80 yards to the house, high-stepping down the sideline to tie the game at 20.
After another three-and-out, Florida went 70 yards in three plays, capped by a 23-yard touchdown pass from Driskel to tight end Jordan Reed. Driskel faced heavy pressure from two defenders on the play but hung in the pocket and delivered a strike where only Reed could catch it in the front corner of the end zone. Just like that Florida had gone from down seven to up seven. Four plays, 150 yards of offense and 14 points.
“We have athletes all over the field, and we know if we keep giving them the ball and giving them touches that eventually they’re going to break,” Driskel said. “Fortunately for us, we hit a couple big plays when we needed them.”