GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Matt Jones’ first carry of the season is what the Gators envision the 6-foot-2, 226-pound sophomore running back doing on a regular basis: bulldoze his way past the line of scrimmage, dart through a running lane and pick up 9 yards.
Jones’ second carry — no gain — not so much. As for Jones’ third carry in Saturday’s 21-16 loss at Miami — a fumble and first of five Florida turnovers on the day — that is definitely something the Gators can do without.
Making his second career start and first as Florida’s featured back — he started in a special formation package to open last season’s game at Tennessee — Jones rushed 18 times for 47 yards in his 2013 debut.
His fumble came on Florida’s opening drive when Miami linebacker Denzel Perryman popped the ball from Jones’ grasp with a hit from his helmet. Miami’s Curtis Porter recovered at the 50-yard line and nine plays later the Hurricanes scored to take a lead they never relinquished.
Jones missed all of fall camp and the season opener against Toledo recovering from a serious viral infection he contracted right before camp opened. His 18 carries Saturday nearly doubled his previous career high (10) set last season against Kentucky.
“I thought he ran well,’’ Gators coach Will Muschamp said. “I thought the fumble — we need to hold onto the ball. It was a good tackle on their part. Hat on the ball, but we had given Matt plenty of contact going into that situation. Good tackle on their part.”
Jones split series for much of the game with redshirt junior Mack Brown, who rushed for a career-high 112 yards in Florida’s season-opening win over Toledo with Jones unavailable.
Jones’ 9-yard run was his longest of the day and he averaged just 2.6 yards per carry, well below the 5.3-yard average he had on 52 carries backing up Mike Gillislee as a freshman last season.
In a brief locker-room interview with GatorVision after the game, Jones said he has work to do to get in top form.
“First game back was good. I just need to keep getting better,’’ Jones said. “As a team, we tried to fight and fight. We gave it our all. It’s still early in the season. We’ve got a long season to go. We controlled the ball the whole time up and down the field, got in the red zone and can’t score. We just need to execute more.”
After rushing for 262 yards against Toledo, the Gators managed only 122 yards on 44 carries against the Hurricanes.
Muschamp said the lack of open holes in the run game Saturday was due to a combination of factors.
“They had some guys stacked in there,’’ he said. “We felt we could get on the perimeter as much as anything. They were big inside. We had to reshuffle our offensive line. Tyler Moore went down. Jon Harrison went down. Max Garcia was down. We had to makeshift some guys to get through it at the time. D.J. Humphries, very sore in the second half, we held him.
“You need to have some continuity up there, but at the end of the day we need to execute better and play better. That’s on us.”
The bye week comes at a good time for the Gators, who left Miami with a loss and a banged up offensive line. Quarterback Jeff Driskel also suffered a sprained knee in the second quarter and was on crutches Monday for precautionary reasons. Driskel is expected to play against Tennessee on Sept. 21.
Harrison, Florida’s starting center, returned to the game Saturday after he left due to an undisclosed injury in the second quarter. As the Gators move into SEC play with Tennessee up next, Harrison expects to see more of the Jones who reeled off that 9-yard gain on his first carry of the season.
That could solve a lot of the issues on offense that popped up at Miami.
“First game back, everyone has to shake the rust off the hinges,’’ Harrison said. “We just know that he is going to go hard no matter what. These two weeks will really benefit our team.”