The Florida Gators (1-0) exorcised some demons on Saturday, erasing a seven-game losing skid and continuing a 25-game season-opener winning streak by running through the Eastern Michigan Eagles (1-1) on Saturday afternoon at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Florida.
The Gators upended the Eagles 65-0, scoring eight touchdowns and forcing five turnovers in an afternoon where everything seemed to go Florida’s way.
Head coach Will Muschamp spoke with the media after the season-opening victory, addressing what he saw as the highs and lows of the win.
“Very pleased with what we were able to do today. Hit some big plays offensively, missed a couple. We got to hit those down the field. I thought Jeff [Driskel threw the ball extremely well. You saw what I referenced as far as his command and comfort with where we are. …
“I thought we protected pretty well. The turnovers were huge to be able to get those in the game and get the ball off some people. Eighty-six plays – that was good to have that many skill kids and take that many shots. …
“Defensively, I thought we did OK. I thought there were some things they missed. We didn’t cover down on a couple things in the secondary especially that would have hit against someone else probably, in my opinion. We got to get that cleaned up.”
TOLD YOU SO
Muschamp never doubted that Florida would be better in 2014, claiming all offseason that the Gators’ health and improved talent on offense – coupled with a more intense resolve from the entire roster – would lead UF to success in 2014. After Saturday’s dominant victory, he was happy to reiterate that point.
“We just needed to win. We needed to get out and play. We’re much improved. I’ve told you guys that all along. It’s not false bravado. It’s real. We are a better football team. We’re much improved,” he said.
“When you get D.J. Humphries, when you get Chaz Green, when you get Jeff Driskel and Matt Jones, when you get all these guys back – Andre Debose looked pretty good returning kicks – when you get that amount of playmakers back, you’re going to look like a better football coach.”
As far as Florida scoring eight touchdowns, notching three field goals and setting a bunch of scoring records under his tenure, Muschamp did not seem to care much.
“I think it’s great, but [the fans are] more concerned about winning, just like me,” he said. “But they like [scoring], too, I guess.”
”A GOOD FOOTBALL PLAYER” BUT “A MUCH BETTER PERSON”
Most that follow the Gators know the story of redshirt senior linebacker Neiron Ball, a talented and passionate player who nearly lost his life in the spring of 2011 after a blood vessel ruptured in his brain. It took Ball a full year to recover from his hereditary vascular condition, and he was not the same player when he returned to the field in 2012. Even last year, he was just starting to truly turn a corner and become a productive player for Florida as the season began to spiral out of control.
Ball certainly made an impact on Saturday, however, leading the way for the Gators with six tackles including four solo and 2.5 for lost yardage. In addition to disrupting the quarterback with two sacks and a hurry, Ball also forced a fumble in the contest, easily making him Florida’s defensive player of the game.
“Neiron is a very good football player. He’s a guy that can really play well in space as far as a linebacker is concerned. He’s got good off-the-ball instincts. He’s also a good end-of-the-line player. He’s a very good pass rusher,” explained Muschamp. “We can get him in some matchup situations. People are going to slide the protection to Dante [Fowler. We can create some one-on-ones for Neiron on a back or tight end that can be advantageous for us.”
As proud as Muschamp is of what Ball did on the field Saturday, he spoke even more extensively about nearly losing him for good in 2011 and the type of player he has been off the field for the Gators.
“I could be up here for a couple hours talking about Neiron Ball as far as what he’s faced off the field and his family situation and what he’s lost. He’s a lot tougher than I am, I can tell you that,” he said.
“He is a great young man, a guy who went through a hereditary issue my first year here – we almost lost him on the practice field. … Thank goodness for UF Health, which back then it was Shands, to be able to have that facility for us to be able to recognize the issue, address the issue. It was a hereditary blood vessel that popped in his head. It wasn’t about football at that point. It was about living.
“I flew back that night and stayed in the hospital with him and didn’t even really know much about him other than I heard he was a great kid. I found out on my own how much he has persevered through in his life. … He’s a good football player and all that, but he’s a much better person.”
IMPRESSIVE PERFORMANCES BEHIND CENTER
A redshirt junior and Florida’s unquestioned starter, Driskel had himself a game on Saturday. Completing 31-of-45 passes – setting career-highs for both statistics – Driskel accounted for 248 yards through the air and a touchdown, a five-yard pass to Jones.
His 68.8 percent passing and good decision making was nothing to sneeze at, and Driskel would have easily gone over 300 yards passing – perhaps eclipsing 350 as well – had it not been for drops, pass interference penalties and two overthrows of his own doing.
Yet no matter how well Driskel played on Saturday, it would have been impossible for him to eclipse what freshman quarterback Treon Harris did in mop-up duty.
Harris’s first career pass was caught by redshirt freshman wide receiver Demarcus Robinson, who deftly broke a tackle and took it 70 yards to the house for a touchdown. His second career pass found redshirt senior running back Mark Herndon on a slant; Herndon turned it up the field to the tune of 78 yards and another touchdown.
He left the field 2-for-2 with 148 yards and two touchdowns. Harris’s passer rating for the evening was a seemingly impossible 1051.6. Yes, that’s one-thousand and fifty-one.
Muschamp was not attempting to run up the score by having his backup quarterback throw bombs. Instead, he was simply trying to give him some real-game experience and test his arm in limited action.
“You get in that situation and we felt like we had some deep ball opportunities in the game. I told Kurt [Roper, ‘The guy needs to play, we need to play the guy.’ We don’t need to sit on the ball. We need to take some shots. We did that, and he hit on it,” Muschamp said. “He needs more and more of those reps and more and more of those opportunities to go in and play and play the game.”
HISTORY / STREAKS / STATS
» Florida won a football game for the first time in 336 days.
» The Gators improved to 11-1 all-time against current MAC members (2-0 vs. the Eagles).
» Florida has now won 25-straight season openers dating back to 1990, the second-longest streak in the nation behind Nebraska (29).
» The Gators scored 65+ points on Saturday for the first time since posting 70 against The Citadel on Nov. 22, 2008. The 65 points scored by Florida were 11 more than the previous high under Muschamp (54) and the first time UF eclipsed 60 since Sept. 5, 2009 (62 vs. Charleston Southern).
» Florida registered a shutout for the first time since Nov. 17, 2012 vs. Jacksonville State. It was the first time in 68 games dating back to 2008 that Eastern Michigan was shut out.
» The Gators outgained the Eagles 655-125 on the afternoon, a 5.24-to-1 margin. The 655 yards of offense is the ninth-most in school history for a single game. UF averaged 261.8 yards per game in 2013.
» It was the first time since Sept. 24, 2011 that Florida had three running backs rush for at least one touchdown each in a single game.
» The Gators ran 50 plays in the first half and 86 total in Saturday’s game, 20 more plays than UF averaged per game in 2013 (66.1).
» Florida gained five turnovers for the third time under Muschamp and did not cough up the ball once for the 11th time in his tenure. UF’s +5 turnover margin Saturday is its best under Muschamp and the first time the Gators have gained at least five turnovers without giving up the ball since Sept. 11, 2010.
» Driskel’s 31 completions on Saturday marked the first time a Florida quarterback saw that many balls hauled in since Tim Tebow in the 2010 Sugar Bowl.
» Redshirt senior WR Quinton Dunbar extended his streak of consecutive games with a reception to 29 games after catching a ball on the first offensive play for UF on Saturday.
25 Gators saw game action for the first time including nine true freshmen, 12 redshirt freshmen and three transfers.
» Duke Dawson became the first true freshman in school history to return an interception for a touchdown in his first game.
» Redshirt senior kicker
NOTES AND QUOTES
» Senior tight end Clay Burton more than doubled his previous career-high (three) with a team-high seven receptions on the day. He will be counted on now to be the Gators’ primary pass catcher out of the tight end position and is ready for the challenge. “It felt really great just having [the confidence of the coaches]. It just allowed me to go play free and give everything I had to the team,” he said. “I love that role. I want to accept it. I want to do whatever I can to help the team win. If that’s what they need me to do, I’m going to keep working hard behind the scenes like I’ve been doing.”
» Redshirt freshman RB Adam Lane was neither dressed nor on the sideline during Saturday’s game. Muschamp explained after the contest that Lane had a “family situation,” and the coach suggested he return home to Winter Haven to deal with it.
» Muschamp on why Driskel did not run more in the game: “We asked him to protect himself in some situations. … It’s difficult for him because he’s a competitive young man.”
» Muschamp on Robinson and his breakout game: “Really proud of Demarcus, again, he’s really come on and done some nice things for us. He’s an outstanding young man. He’s fun to be around. He’s an electric guy with the ball in his hand. He can make some things happen for us. We need to continue to work on ball security with him and those sort of things, but he’s certainly a guy that can make some plays for you.”
» Muschamp on Velez kicking all the field goals and whether he’s the full-time starter: “Right now we went into the game saying, 25-yard line and in, Frankie was going to kick. Outside of that, probably to the 34-35, we’d kick Austin [Hardin]. Frankie kicked well. Austin, we had a couple errant kickoffs we need to work on there. We’ll continue to work through those things. We just can’t continue to give up that kind of field position as the games move forward.”
» Muschamp on freshmen like RB Brandon Powell (touchdown) and redshirt defensive tackle Caleb Brantley (recovered fumble, forced fumble) finding early success: “Playing as a freshman has to do with having ability, but Brandon is a very mature young man, I mean extremely mature beyond his years. He’s able to handle that situation. That goes more than what coaching can do for you. He’s just a very mature guy and guys like that. Caleb has come along. Caleb needed to redshirt last year. He’s going to need to continue to get more snaps and reps and hopefully more situations we can put him in.”
» Debose on how much fun he’s having in Roper’s offense: “This is the most fun that I’ve seen everybody have in the last six years, man. Just our offense…we know we’re good. You can see we’re putting up 65 points. I haven’t seen that since I’ve been here. It’s just amazing, man. I’m very excited about this season.”
» Robinson broke out with six receptions for 123 yards and his 70-yard touchdown catch.
» Sophomore RB Kelvin Taylor carried the rock eight times for 68 yards and two touchdowns. He was one of three Florida rushers to average more than eight yards per carry. Jones took eight carries for 65 yards and a touchdown (catching another from Driskel), and redshirt senior Mack Brown had a highlight 47-yard run while rushing for 58 yards on six touches.