GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The transition has gone better than anyone probably had a right to expect.
The Gators say they are not surprised. Really, they do.
With the Tyler Murphy era at quarterback still in its infancy, Murphy looks like he has been Florida’s quarterback for three years instead of three games.
“That’s my roommate,” Florida safety Cody Riggs said late Saturday. “Not surprised at all. I’ve always been Tyler’s No. 1 fan. Seeing him at quarterback makes me the happiest guy in the world. Everybody on this team knows that he is capable of what he is doing right now. He is doing a great job.”
In Florida’s 30-10 win over Arkansas on Saturday night — yes, night, the first night game at Florida Field since November 2011 — Murphy was as good as he’s been since taking over for the injured Jeff Driskel.
Murphy finished 16 of 22 for a career-high 240 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
He managed the game exactly the way Florida head coach Will Muschamp and offensive coordinator Brent Pease wanted.
At Muschamp’s weekly radio call-in show on Thursday night, a caller seemed to suggest that the Gators might need more at quarterback than Manager Murphy — a redshirt junior who manages the game well and makes good decisions.
Muschamp will take the guy who led the Gators to their third consecutive SEC win since he took over.
“He did a fantastic job again of just managing our team,” Muschamp said. “I’ve been criticized a little bit for saying ‘manage.’ Tom Brady is a great game manager. It’s about converting third downs. It’s about completing passes. It’s about getting your offense in and out of the right runs, the right passes, protections, taking the ball to the right spot, taking care of the football, scoring points, moving your team, your team having confidence in you.
“I mean, that’s one of the greatest compliments you can have as a quarterback. A game manager: a guy who does what he is supposed to do. I don’t know where that became a bad word in the coaching profession.”
While Murphy’s emergence has sparked the Gators, the emergence of senior receiver Solomon Patton has sparked Murphy.
Patton has developed into Florida’s big-play receiver. He has 19 catches and four touchdowns in five games after having only eight career catches prior to this season.
Right before halftime on Saturday and with the Gators nursing a 10-7 lead, Patton caught a 51-yard touchdown pass from Murphy to put the Gators ahead by 10 points with 20 seconds left in the second quarter.
The play capped a six-play, 75-yard drive and provided a huge momentum boost.
That boost carried over to Florida’s first drive of the second half, a seven-play, 75-yard drive that ended with Murphy throwing a short pass to Patton and the speedy 5-foot-9, 168-pound receiver doing the rest on the way to a 38-yard touchdown.
The sellout crowd of 90,043 erupted as Patton outran the Razorbacks to the end zone.
“It was just a great feeling to be able to perform like that in front of all those fans,” Patton said. “We haven’t had a night game in two years.”
Patton’s contributions have been significant. He is averaging a team-high 18.3 yards per catch and has caught three of Murphy’s five touchdown passes.
Patton’s story is much like Murphy’s. While Murphy sat on the bench and watched five other quarterbacks take snaps for the Gators until getting his opportunity, Patton was primarily a special-teams player and jet-sweep specialist in the run game.
He broke his arm in the Georgia game last season and missed the rest of the season, casting some doubt as to whether he would ever do much for the Gators.
“I could have easily given up,” Patton said. “Coming from that injury and doing the things I’m doing now, it means a lot.”
Muschamp had no plans on giving up on Patton, not after hearing how much he improved over the summer in player-only workouts. When fall camp started, Muschamp immediately noticed a difference.
“This guy was a refined route runner,’’ Muschamp said. “He was not just a speed-sweep guy. Not just a specialty guy. We told him, ‘We need you to be a guy who can help us in the game.’ He is having a special year.
“He’s a guy that if he gets a step, he’s a hard guy to catch. Our guys can’t catch him — and we can run.”
The Gators did a lot of things right in Saturday’s win. They didn’t turn the ball over for the first time all season. Cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy had a sack, forced a fumble and returned an interception 42 yards for a touchdown to put the Gators up 10-7 in the second quarter. Florida didn’t commit a penalty in the first half.
That changed after halftime with eight flags for 84 yards.
“Very disappointed with that,” Muschamp said. “That can’t be part of our team.”
The kicking game wasn’t great, either. Austin Hardin had a field goal blocked and was replaced by Brad Phillips, who later missed an extra point. Punter Kyle Christy shanked a punt.
And defensively, the Gators clamped down after falling behind 7-0 in the first quarter thanks to 81 yards rushing by the Razorbacks. Arkansas managed only 30 yards rushing the rest of the game and finished with 275 yards of total offense, the fifth consecutive game the Gators have held the opponent to 275 yards or less.
The win sets up a huge showdown next week at No. 10-ranked LSU. The Gators — and Murphy — can take another huge leap with a road win over the Tigers.
Murphy showed his natural poise on the field and in the interview room after Saturday night’s win.
He wanted to soak up his first career home start, but also start planning for next week.
“A big home win, a great atmosphere, a night game in the Swamp — it doesn’t get much better than that,” Murphy said. “I’m a lot more comfortable.”