After starting quarterback Jeff Driskel was lost for the season with a broken leg, Tyler Murphy led No. 19 Florida to five scores in a somewhat ugly game and helped the Gators open Southeastern Conference play with a 31-17 victory over Tennessee on Saturday.
Murphy had a 52-yard touchdown throw to Solomon Patton, a swing pass that went the distance, and made several plays with his legs as Florida (2-1, 1-0 SEC) won its ninth consecutive game in the series.
Murphy’s 7-yard TD scamper in the fourth quarter made it 31-10 and sent fans scrambling for the exits.
The Volunteers (2-2, 0-1) had hoped to rebound from an embarrassing, 59-14 loss at No. 2 Oregon a week ago. Instead, Tennessee and first-year coach Butch Jones left Gainesville with another double-digit setback.
Jones’ strangest decision might have been to bench Justin Worley and give redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman his first career start on the road and in front of 90,000.
Peterman, who grew up in nearby Jacksonville, had three turnovers in a 17-minute span in the first half and was benched at the break.
Worley wasn’t a whole lot better.
Then again, no one was perfect aside from Florida’s defense.
Murphy completed 8 of 14 passes for 134 yards. He also ran 10 times for 84 yards. His biggest mistake was taking a snap off his facemask, a botched play that resulted in a fumble.
That was one of nine turnovers on the day.
The Volunteers had six — four in the first half. Peterman had three, and Raijon Neal fumbled on the team’s second play. Dante Fowler Jr. wrecked the exchange, his first of several big plays.
Florida had three turnovers in the first half, including running back Matt Jones’ second in two games. The Gators also botched a snap on a punt, a miscue that gave Tennessee great field position before Neal’s fumble.
Driskel got hurt on one of the turnovers.
Already playing with a brace on his sprained left knee, Driskel broke his right leg while throwing an interception in the first quarter.
Devaun Swafford picked off the pass and returned it 62 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead. Marlon Walls pulled Driskel to the ground and landed on his leg as he released the ball. Driskel tried to get up, but then dropped back to the turf and called for trainers. He limped off the field a few minutes later, got checked on the sideline and then used crutches to get to the locker room.
Driskel was later ruled out for the rest of the season. Murphy replaced him on the next drive.
The fourth-year junior had never thrown a pass in college, watching from the sideline as Driskel, Jacoby Brissett, John Brantley, Jordan Reed and Trey Burton all took snaps ahead of him.
An injury to Driskel was supposed to significantly hamper Florida’s offense.
But the Gators hardly missed a beat with Murphy running things.
He led the offense to four touchdowns and a field goal in nine drives. Of course, it came against Tennessee, which has lost the last seven games in the series by double digits. A couple of those were downright one-sided.
The Gators finished with 382 total yards, 162 more than Tennessee.
The Volunteers got going in the fourth, when Worley found Pig Howard alone in the corner of the end zone. It came with Florida down three defensive backs.
Cornerback Marcus Roberson (knee) missed the game, and fellow cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy left after sustaining a thigh bruise in the second half. Defensive back Brian Poole was ejected early in the fourth quarter for targeting. The play was upheld after review, meaning Poole will miss the first half of next week’s game at Kentucky.
With Driskel out, the Gators surely feel much better after Murphy’s performance.