Junior quarterback Jeff Driskel was not the only member of the No. 9/12 Florida Gators (1-1) that turned the ball over on Saturday. But as the leader of the team and offense, his mistakes were the most glaring – and game-changing.
And that’s why the story of Florida’s 21-16 loss to the No. 24 Miami Hurricanes (2-0) at Sun Life Stadium, at least as it pertains to Driskel, is centered on his three untimely turnovers rather than the career-high 291 yards he threw for on the afternoon.
It’s also why he took responsibility after the game – not like he had much of a choice in the matter.
“We couldn’t hold onto the ball. I think we had five turnovers. It started with me,” he said. “I was careless with the ball, a couple of interceptions, putting the ball on the ground there at the end and a couple of fumbles. They were all costly.”
The turnover parade did not start with Driskel. Sophomore running back Matt Jones, playing his first game of the season after being sidelined with a serious viral infection, fumbled the ball on his third carry of the season during the game’s opening possession.
Down 14-6, Driskel led the Gators into the red zone by completing a 46-yard pass to senior wide receiver Solomon Patton. He negated his productive bomb with his first pick of the game, a pass to Patton – who was covered by five orange jerseys – from the Canes’ 11-yard line on 3rd-and-Goal.
“When I saw the ball in the air and I saw the guy cutting it, I knew it wasn’t pretty,” he explained. “It was a dumb play. I should have just taken what the defense gave me. Instead, I tried to make the bigger play. That’s what I’ve got to move on from.”
Driskel’s next turnover came on downs. Faced with 4th-and-1 at Miami’s 16-yard line, he was supposed to keep the ball and sneak it forward up the middle for a yard.
UM lined up stacked on the defensive line, especially in the middle, making it quite obvious that they knew the play UF was about to call.
Rather than adjust into a play that Florida would have a better chance of converting, Driskel went ahead and got stuffed for no gain.
“We could’ve checked out of it,” head coach Will Muschamp said.
Driskel noted: “We had confidence in our O-line that we could get a push. On that play, Miami did a great job of really stuffing every hole. Sometimes the defense beats you.”
Next to the party was senior WR Trey Burton, who caught a pass from Driskel in the red zone with the clock winding down in the first half but fumbled the ball at Miami’s 13-yard line. Burton was also involved on Driskel’s second interception.
Faced with 3rd-and-3 at the Canes’ 17-yard line mid-way through the fourth quarter, Driskel threw a pass to Burton that was intercepted and returned 36 yards.
“It was just a bad call on my part. He’s covered. Either throw the ball away or try to pick up the first down with your feet. That was just a bad decision on my part,” Driskel admitted.
Burton, however, refused to put the blame on his quarterback.
“I ran the wrong route,” he explained. “That was not his fault. That play was my fault. I did not play a good game today.”
Whether Driskel is to blame for the second interception is of little matter in the grand scheme of things. His third turnover of the game – a fumble during a sack inside the Gators’ 10-yard line with less than five minutes to play – was the third time he’s had a ball knocked loose in the last two games (second lost).
In all, Florida turned the ball over six times including the change of possession on downs with four of those miscues occurring in the red zone.
“You can’t afford to do that in games like this. You got to go down there and get points. You end every possession with a kick, you’ll win a bunch of games. And we didn’t do that today,” Muschamp said.
“We had over 400 yards. We outgained them [by] 200 yards. But that doesn’t win you any games, and that’s the bottom line. You just can’t have five turnovers. And you can’t turn the ball over in the red zone. You just can’t do it.
“You can’t go 1-for-6 scoring touchdowns in the red zone. Can’t do it. You got to get some points and you just got to score.”
Muschamp said after the game that Driskel needed to do a better job getting rid of the ball and settling for a less glamorous outcome when faced with the option.
“You just got to play smart football in some situations,” he said. “You can’t throw the ball into traffic in the red zone. In those critical situations, you’re taking points off the board, you’re creating momentum for the other team. A lot of things go on when that happens. It’s not just the fact that you had a turnover. Those are situations we got to correct.”
That being said, Muschamp also offered a modicum of praise for Driskel’s performance, noting that he threw the ball better vertically and was effective at times in the running game. He also said he believes Driskel has taken a step forward from the 2012 incarnation of himself.
“I think he’s a much better player at this time. There’s no question,” Muschamp said. “Would he like to have some of those throws back? Absolutely. I’d like to have some calls back. That’s part of it.
“I thought Jeff did some really nice things in the game as well as far as throwing the football, getting the field vertical. We just got to get rid of the ball at some times in some situations.”
The quarterback did, after all, throw for the most yards by a Florida passer since Nov. 19, 2011, while helping a pair of UF wide receivers each register 98+ yards in the same game for the first time since Nov. 3, 2007.
Driskel felt support from his teammates after the game and noted that the Gators cannot hang their heads over the loss because there is still “a lot of football to play this year.” He also thinks Florida has proven that it can move the ball but said eliminating turnovers will be the key going forward.
So while fans may be directing their anger at Driskel through the weekend – and likely much longer – the Gators have his back.
“If you point one finger, you’ve got three fingers pointing right back at you,” redshirt sophomore linebacker Michael Taylor said after the game. “So before you point a finger at somebody else, you’ve got to point a finger at yourself.
“We’re a team. We’re not an offense; we’re not a defense. Execution was very poor today. We didn’t make plays at the right time for us to come out with a victory.”