Another day passes by for the Florida faithful, and another key player goes down with an injury. First it was quarterback Jeff Driskel, now it is defensive tackle Dominique Easley who tore his ACL in practice this week. It should go without saying that we never celebrate an injury to anybody, but it is clear that the loss of Easley could prove costly for the Gators defense going up against a Kentucky team that has shown a lot of promise, but still has a lot to prove.
In the first three weeks of the season the Florida Gators have demonstrated a powerful defense, but they have struggled on offense… And things are only getting worse. Before his injury, Driskel was leading the way with nearly 500 yards passing, but the Gators will now turn it over to unproven junior Tyler Murphy who has plenty of athleticism — and that could turn out to be the best thing or the worst thing for Florida going forward.
The name of the game is now running the football. Mack Brown and Matt Jones will pave the way for a Gators offense that has rushed for 599 yards in three games. The sophomore Jones is stepping into a much larger role than he was in last year while he was running behind Mike Gillislee, and the same is true for the junior Brown. The O-line lost two big linemen from a year ago, and smaller more athletic guards, D.J. Humphries and Max Garcia, replace them. The quickness of Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith off the ends will be suppressed slightly because of that added athleticism, but the overall inexperience could still be exploited.
For the guy under center, Tyler Murphy, this will truly be a trial by fire. Last week against Tennessee, Driskel was injured early in the 1st quarter, but the Gators offense utilized Murphy sporadically in the passing game, as he completed 8-of-14 passes versus 10 rushing attempts. He piled up a decent 134 yards on those 8 completions, including a touchdown, but that and 52 of those yards came on one pass. That’s almost 40 percent of his production on a single play. Murphy was a two-star quarterback out of high school, so here’s to hoping the guys at Rivals know their stuff.
Lined up at receiver for Murphy will be a host of veteran pass-catchers, including the infamous Trey Burton, Quinton Dunbar, and Solomon Patton. Each has at least 10 receptions and 160 yards, though Patton is the only wide out with a touchdown catch thus far. Typically when the Gators throw to their receivers it’s for big chunks of yards, as the average for these top three guys is more than 10-yards per reception. It seems fair to say Kentucky’s secondary has been better than expected this season, but they will be tested this week even with the unproven quarterback.
For the Wildcats, going up against this Gators defense will be a bear. Despite losing Jonathan Bostic, Sharrif Floyd, and Matt Elam to the NFL last season, Florida has an elite defensive unit that is absolutely smothering. This season the Gators have allowed just 42 yards rushing to Tennessee’s senior back Raijon Neal, and 59 yards to Miami’s Duke Johnson. Cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy is a headliner on defense and he will be all over the field Saturday, but he takes a lot of pressure off the rest of the guys to focus on stopping the run — and it is working. However, there will be a huge hole up front with the loss of Dominique Easley. Look for the Cats to tryi to find a running lane up the middle because of his absence. Despite his loss and the loss of a few to the NFL, this Gators defense is elite and fast. Last season they finished fifth in the nation in team defense, and honestly the unit is still just as good.
Florida surely wasn’t hoping to be as reliant on the running game as it was last year with a season under the belt of Driskel and a revamped offensive line geared more toward the speed of the SEC. But now that he’s down with an injury it seems the rushing game of the Gators will again be the focal point of the offense, starting with this weekend’s game against the Cats.
Mack Brown has been the lead back so far for the Gators with his 59 carries for 227 yards, good for a respectable 3.8-yard average. Standing at just 5-11, what Brown lacks in stature he makes up for in blazing speed, with his 40-yard dash clocked in at least 4.4 seconds (watch out James). Combine his ability with Matt Jones who is equally as explosive, and you have a deadly tailback combo. Jones has a knack for creating his own running room with break tackle ability and once he’s in open ground there is just no stopping him.
The read option was a legitimate threat with Jeff Driskel lined up, and you can surely expect to see that will continue with Murphy at the helm, if for no other reason than to allow him to settle in to his new role as a starting quarterback. The philosophy of the Florida offense doesn’t change one bit with the new QB, but the confidence level of not only the guy under center, but the entire unit could be in jeopardy. Kentucky’s ability to rattle Murphy much like it did against Teddy Bridgewater in the first part of the Louisville game will make it or break it for the Cats. If you can disrupt the quarterback play just long enough to force a turnover or two and capitalize, things could really start falling into place.
You’ve heard it over and over, but this is a great chance at an upset. All the stars seem to be aligning with the injuries and recent play by the Cats, even in the loss to Louisville. There is a lot of positive vibes surrounding the team right now, and you know Commonwealth Stadium will be juiced up for the first night game of the season. Let’s just see Big Blue Nation get loose on that liquid courage and have the team take care of the rest.