Luke Del Rio was down on his back motionless. The crowd was silent.
The quarterback grimaced in pain, his left leg injured after being hit late by North Texas defensive end Joshua Wheeler in the third quarter of Saturday night’s game.
Three trainers rushed to the UF 40-yard line, performing a series of tests to evaluate the severity of the injury. After about five minutes, Del Rio was propped up to his feet and hobbled off the field, straight toward the locker room — an abrupt ending to a 186-yard, one-interception performance.
The No. 23 Gators came away from the game with a 32-0 victory over the Mean Green on Saturday night, but with the status of their starting quarterback is up in the air, the final score seemed almost insignificant.
“It doesn’t look great,” McElwain said after the game, adding that Del Rio would likely be out next week against Tennessee. “You know what, we’ll do whatever. Somebody else will play. We’ll get some guys ready.”
A fight almost broke out following Del Rio’s injury. As McElwain approached referees at midfield, both benches began to clear. Tight end DeAndre Goolsby and offensive lineman Fred Johnson restrained McElwain, and Jalen Tabor helped pull him back to the Florida sideline as the eruption stalled without a punch being thrown.
On the next play, offensive lineman Martez Ivey was ejected following a personal foul, which McElwain said should have been his penalty.
“I obviously took that low hit off of Luke personal,” McElwain said. “I told him after the ball game, ‘I’m sure this guy was just scrambling, trying to make a play,’ but you know what, I really care about these players. I care about them in more ways than just as football players. When you see something like that, it’s my responsibility when their parents aren’t here to be their parents.”
Florida (3-0) thrived off the negative energy and finished the game by pulverizing North Texas.
“We’ve got your back, Coach,” Tabor said he told McElwain. “Let us play. We’ll finish the game.”
The defense posted one of its best performances in program history from start to finish, giving up a program-low 53 yards of offense. North Texas quarterback Mason Fine was sacked seven times and the Mean Green managed just eight first downs, three of which came by penalty. It was Florida’s first shutout victory since a 65-0 blowout against Eastern Michigan to open the 2014 season — a 27-game span.
Florida’s running backs combined for 250 yards, with each of Florida’s four running backs recording a touchdown.
Quarterback Austin Appleby, who entered following Del Rio’s injury, finished with 30 yards on 2-of-4 passing and led the Gators to two touchdown drives.
Appleby, who battled Del Rio for the starting job throughout spring and fall camp, probably will be the Gators’ starting quarterback against Tennessee.
“The preparation doesn’t change,” said Appleby, a graduate transfer from Purdue. “I’ve prepared as a starting quarterback from the moment I arrived on campus.”
Before exiting for the night, Del Rio lifted his right hand in the air twice, asking the 86,848 in attendance to stay optimistic. They responded with a roar of applause. The Gators responded with their third win and an added sense of urgency.
“When we saw that, honestly we just sent prayers up for him,” safety Marcell Harris said. “Hopefully, he’ll be all right.”