GAINESVILLE - For months, Tyler Murphy had been hearing how he was just a heartbeat away from being the No. 1 quarterback at the University of Florida.
It was actually an ankle.
Gators quarterback Jeff Driskel, who had a sprained knee two weeks ago in a loss at Miami, went down in the first six minutes against Tennessee on Saturday with an ankle injury and didn’t return. With Driskel out, Murphy was thrust into the spotlight having not thrown a pass in a regular season game in his three previous seasons.
He didn’t blink in the glare of a national television audience, leading the Gators to a 31-17 victory over the Volunteers.
While Driskel was getting X-rays, Murphy completed five of seven first-half passes to help UF overcome a seven-point deficit and lead 17-7 at the break after it looked like disaster could be looming. Murphy finished 8 of 14 for 134 yards and a touchdown.
Mack Brown and Murphy both went over 80 yards on the ground as the Gators surpassed the 200-yard rushing mark, making Will Muschamp 14-0 in his tenure when UF gains 150 yards or more on the ground.
It was the ninth straight win in the series for Florida (2-1) in the SEC opener for both teams. While Murphy did his part to get some points - looking especially good on a pair of long touchdown drives - the defense forced four Vols (2-2) turnovers in the first half and shut down UT virtually the entire contest.
Driskel’s injury wasn’t the only testing moment in the game as UF once again had a bad case of turnovers, with three in the opening two quarters after five at Miami in a 21-16 loss two weeks ago.
Gators punter Kyle Christy mishandled a snap that hit him in both hands in the early moments. Tennessee took over but two plays later Dante Fowler hit Vols running back Raijon Neal and forced yet another fumble, which Neal recovered.
But Florida’s offense proved to be UT’s best scoring threat in the first half. On third-and-3 from the Tennessee 41 Driskel’s last pass of the game was intercepted by Vols linebacker Devaun Swafford and returned 62 yards for the game’s first points.
Driskel was taken off the field after the play with an ankle injury and did not return. It was his third interception in his last 30 pass attempts.
Fowler, however, hit redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Peterman of Jacksonville and forced another fumble. Michael Taylor recovered at the UT 6 but the Gators had to settle for a 23-yard Austin Hardin field goal.
Less than two minutes into the second quarter, however, Florida went ahead thanks to a 52-yard TD pass from Murphy to Solomon Patton. Most of the yardage was after the catch, the senior taking a short swing pass and racing down the right sideline untouched.
The two teams had a combined seven turnovers in first half. Tennessee had four of them with a pair of interceptions and fumbles.
The Vols’ last mistake in the opening 30 minutes was an interception by Gators defensive tackle Darious Cummings. The 305-pound backup gathered a deflected pass in the air, rumbled 30 yards and fell when teammate Dominique Easley stepped on his foot - another moment to laugh in a comedy of mistakes by both teams in the opening half.
But this time, Florida went 40 yards to go up 17-7 on Mack Brown’s third TD run of the season, this one from three yards. The Gators ran the ball six of seven plays on the drive.
UF ended the half with 199 yards total offense to just 31 for Tennessee. The experiment of giving Peterman his first career start didn’t work out well for the Vols with just four completions for 5 yards before being replaced last in the second quarter by Justin Worley.
Despite the awful offense, though, the Vols got within 17-10 with 12:17 left in the third quarter on Michael Palardy’s 44-yard field that finished off an eight-play drive to start the second half.
But from there, it was all Murphy and Florida’s defense.
The Gators responded with an 11-play drive over 79 yards that Armwood High graduate Matt Jones finished off with a five-yard touchdown run, his first of the season, to make it a two touchdown game with 7:08 to go in the third. Murphy went in from seven yards out on a keeper to put the score at 31-10 early in the fourth quarter.
Florida’s Jabari Gorman had the Gators’ third interception of the game with 6:08 left to play. UT finished with six turnovers.