That was Gators coach Will Muschamp’s message to his team before Saturday night’s game here at Commonwealth Stadium.
Simple. Brief. Decisive.
Florida lost starting quarterback Jeff Driskel for the season in last week’s win over Tennessee, but Muschamp told the Gators no one cared.
Three days later they lost defensive tackle Dominique Easley for the season with a knee injury. Again, Muschamp reminded his rattled players that others could care less about their woes as they prepared for the SEC road opener at Kentucky.
“In our minds it was like, ‘people are dropping like flies around here,’ ” running back Matt Jones said.
Receiver Trey Burton called the past week “extremely tough.”
Muschamp acknowledged that losing two of your most important players in a span of three days was not in the game plan for the season.
“It’s been a long week for us, psychologically and mentally as much as anything,” Muschamp said late Saturday night. “I’m very pleased with how our guys pulled together and the Gator Nation pulled together and came up here and did what we did.”
What they did was leave the Bluegrass State with no excuses and no regrets after a 24-7 win in quarterback Tyler Murphy’s first career start.
Murphy was excellent from start to finish.
On the opening drive of the game Murphy directed a 13-play, 93-yard drive that ended with Jones scoring on a 2-yard run.
“It felt like we had the ball forever,” Burton said.
If Murphy was nervous for his first start, he didn’t show it. The redshirt junior, after going 8 of 14 for 134 yards in relief of Driskel against Tennessee, connected on his first 13 passes Saturday.
Murphy was 11-for-11 for 120 yards and a touchdown in the first half as the Gators took a 21-7 lead into intermission. Murphy finished 15 of 18 for 156 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
Murphy’s 9-yard touchdown pass to Burton early in the second quarter capped a three-play, 79-yard drive highlighted by Jones’ career-long 67-yard run.
Murphy added a 5-yard touchdown run to cap a nine-play, 62-yard drive with 2:53 left in the first half to give the Gators a 14-point lead.
What the Gators did when the curtain was raised on their first drive answered any questions about how Murphy would respond. He was 4-for-4 for 33 yards on the opening drive, including two completions for third-down conversions.
“My offensive line did a great job, the receivers made some nice catches, and Matt Jones took the ball in the hole with some nice runs,” Murphy said. “Anytime you can have a long drive like that to start the game, it’s a big plus for you. You can’t ask for a better start. That’s a heartbreaker for a defense.”
The Wildcats tied the game briefly on a fake field goal that resulted in a 25-yard touchdown run by kicker Joe Mansour with 1:46 left in the first quarter.
Still, when the Gators responded in the second quarter, the Wildcats knew it was going to be a long night. Florida defeated Kentucky for the 27th consecutive time, a new SEC record for most consecutive wins in an uninterrupted series.
“Right from the opening drive, they kind of set the tone of what the night was going to be like,” Wildcats coach Mark Stoops said. “They really controlled both lines of scrimmage.”
Perhaps equally important, the Gators controlled their emotions and went to work without two of their best players.
Muschamp’s message resonated.
“I was very concerned going into the game,” he said.
Afterward, he spoke like a proud parent.
“We’ve got a bunch of guys that care about each other,” he said. “They are there to pick each other up regardless of the situation. You can’t always control your circumstances in life but you can control your vision and where you are headed.
“We are headed in the right direction. We have had a couple of setbacks, but no one really cares. Nobody is going to feel sorry for us. So we just need to roll our sleeves up and go to work. That’s what we’re going to do.”
That’s exactly what they did from the start Saturday.
Murphy said he wasn’t going to try and play hero in his first start and he didn’t. Other than for his third-quarter interception, Murphy played spotless.
Jones did a lot of the dirty work, rushing 28 times for a career-high 176 yards, the most yards by a Florida running back since Ciatrick Fason rushed for 210 yards against Kentucky in 2004.
The SEC-leading Florida defense was spectacular as usual, limiting the Wildcats to 173 total yards. The Gators had five sacks and freshman cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III intercepted his third pass in four games.
In a week the Gators got mostly bad news, they finally good some good news Saturday.
“It would have been a lot worse if we had come out with a loss,” Burton said. “We knew we had to go take care of business and get a win for those guys.”