GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – You could have understood if the guy next to you at Florida Field on Saturday turned to you after Florida’s first two possessions and asked, “What’s all the fuss about?”
A week after rolling up 555 yards of total offense in a momentum-building win at Tennessee, the Gators opened Saturday’s 38-0 thumping of Kentucky with a whimper.
Florida’s first drive resulted in no yards. The second drive picked up five. By far the best play early for the Gators was Kyle Christy’s booming 53-yard punt that pinned Kentucky at its own 8 after Florida’s second three-and-out series.
Finally, the Gators’ offense woke up when sophomore Jeff Driskel, making his first official start at quarterback in The Swamp, sprinted for a 38-yard run on the first play of Florida’s third drive of the game.
“If I had a little bit more speed I could have probably scored,’’ Driskel said.
It didn’t matter. The run led to a 27-yard field goal from Caleb Sturgis and all the points the Gators needed to beat the Wildcats for the 26th consecutive time. Florida added 35 more points on for good measure.
The defense helped with three interceptions of Kentucky quarterback Morgan Newton, but the offense did its part after a slow start. The Gators finished with 403 yards of total offense, 203 through the air and 200 on the ground.
Driskel finished 18 of 27 (both career highs) for 203 yards with one touchdown and one interception. He added a 1-yard touchdown run and finished with 35 yards rushing thanks to losing 15 yards on three sacks.
Besides the run-pass balance, what made Florida’s offensive balance stand out was how many players offensive coordinator Brent Pease got involved in his play-calling. Driskel’s 18 completions went to 10 different receivers – and none were named Trey Burton, who missed the game due to back spasms.
Omarius Hines, Jordan Reed, Frankie Hammond and Quinton Dunbar each hauled in three receptions and six others had one catch. Hines’ 52-yard reception in the second quarter was Florida’s longest play of the day, but Reed had a 25-yard grab, Hammond a 24-yard catch and Dunbar hauled in a 19-yard touchdown reception that gave the Gators a 24-0 lead late in the first half.
“Some of that was guys getting opportunities and making plays and some of it was personnel groupings,’’ Pease said. “We played more guys in the second half and when they got a chance to make a play they came through.”
The running game also featured more faces than usual.
Running back Mike Gillislee finished with a modest 56 yards on 13 carries, but with the game out of reach in the second half, true freshman Matt Jones got some work and finished with a career-best 45 yards on 10 carries. Tailbacks Chris Johnson (five carries, 35 yards) and Mack Brown (four for 31) also contributed.
While the defense did much of the heavy lifting, Driskel threw down field more than his first two starts. He also threw his first interception of the season when he threw a ball up for grabs in the end zone that was picked off by Kentucky’s Martavius Neloms.
“I tried to force something that wasn’t there,’’ Driskel said. “I got too greedy.”
There were other offensive miscues like a drop by Reed on a long pass in the middle of the field that he had briefly, and Driskel getting sacked at the end of the first half and then Dunbar not getting back to the line of scrimmage soon enough for the Gators to down the ball and try and field goal before time expired.
“It wasn’t a perfect game,’’ Hammond said. “There were still some mess-ups. This is a great chance for us to go back this week and fix those things.”
Still, for the most part the Gators’ offense moved the ball and made enough plays that it never felt like Kentucky really had much of a chance.
They even punched it in three times from the 1-yard line, once by Gillislee for the game’s first touchdown and then by Driskel and reserve quarterback Jacoby Brissett.
“Third down and short yardage had been a point of emphasis,’’ Florida coach Will Muschamp said. “We went to that complicated quarterback sneak. I’m just pleased we were able to convert. We made the throws, made the plays, made the conversions [12 of 17 on third down]. I was very pleased.
“I thought we did a good job of moving the chains and keeping drives alive.”
The Gators put together their longest scoring drive of the season early in the third quarter when Driskel’s 1-yard plunge capped a 15-play, 72-yard drive that ate 9 minutes, 3 seconds off the clock. The scoring drive was Florida’s longest in terms of time of possession since an 8:38 drive against Vanderbilt in 2005.
“That was nice to see,’’ Pease said. “We got the ball with about 12 minutes left in the third quarter and I look up when we scored and there’s less than three minutes left.”
Like Hammond said, the offense wasn’t perfect on Saturday, but it didn’t have to be. It just had to be efficient – Florida’s only turnover was Driskel’s interception – and score when deep in Kentucky territory. The Gators did that, finishing 5-for-5 in red-zone scoring chances, including four touchdowns.
“I thought we were very balanced offensively. We had some shots down the field … we did not connect on some of those,’’ Muschamp said. “We did some good things in the game and obviously some things we need to clean up. I thought offensively coming out in the third quarter with a 15-play drive – took close to 10 minutes off the clock – really wore them down and ended the game.”
That was enough for the fans, many of whom headed for the exits after the long drive, including those befuddled by the offense’s slow start.