GAINESVILLE, Fla. — His record as Florida’s starting quarterback is 11-3 (12-3 if you count that he played the majority of the 2012 opener and started, just not at QB), but those aren’t the numbers Jeff Driskel has been hearing and reading about the last week or so.
The one that’s come up is 10, as in the number of turnovers the UF junior has committed (six interceptions, four fumbles) in those three losses the last two seasons.
That UF’s rabid fan base had a bye week to stew on the frustrating 21-16 loss at Miami may not have helped the external healing process, but it gave the coaches and players five practice days to focus on what went wrong in South Florida as the 19th-ranked Gators (1-1) head into Saturday’s date against Tennessee (2-1) in the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams at Florida Field.
The emphasis last week was not so much about the next opponent, but alleviating the self-destructive mistakes — five turnovers and just nine points in six trips inside the UM 20 — that proved so costly against the Hurricanes.
“No one’s been able to stop us when we haven’t had a turnover or a penalty,” Driskel said Monday in his first media chat since the post-game postmortem Sept. 7 at Sun Life Stadium. “So just worrying about us first and then taking care of the other team second. If we can handle us, we’ll be fine.”
Tough to argue.
Through the first three weekends, the Gators rank last in the SEC in turnover margin (minus-4), last in red zone offense efficiency at 50 percent (6-for-12), last in scoring offense (20.0 points per game) and next-to-last in penalties (20 in two games with 70 yards per).
Now juxtapose those numbers with these:
• UF leads the SEC in total defense (208.5 yards per game).
• The Gators top the league in defending the run, allowing just 50 yards per game and rate third against the pass (158.5 ypg).
• Florida has allowed just two third-down conversions in 24 attempts. That’s 8.3 percent and the best in the country.
• And offensively, the Gators may rank just 11th in the SEC in total offense, but they’re over 400 yards per game (414.0) and lead the league in average time of possession at 39:04.
Now comes the annual date with Tennessee, which Florida has beaten eight straight times dating to 2005, including last season’s 37-20 victory in Knoxville that sent the Volunteers on their way to a 1-7 conference mark and eventually led to the dismissal of Coach Derek Dooley.
Enter Butch Jones, by way of Cincinnati. The Jones era got started with feel-good wins over Austin Peay (45-0) and Western Kentucky (52-20), but the Volunteers went to Oregon over the weekend where they fell 59-14 to the second-ranked Ducks, who cranked out 687 yards of total offense.
The Gators don’t play an up-tempo, wide-open offense like the Ducks, but they could sure use a breakout performance on that side of the ball.
That notion was put to UF coach Will Muschamp. He didn’t bite.
“We’ll get Tennessee’s best effort,” he said. “Oregon has a good football team. We just need to take care of Florida and start the SEC schedule. The tempo and momentum will be a little different here, I can assure you of that.”
It needs to start with Driskel, who will have the complete attention of the crowd in the Swamp. His previous week was spent dissecting his performance at Miami, which aside from the miscues featured a career-high 291 yards passing, including some big-hitters downfield (46 yards, 32 yards, a 21-yard touchdown strike) that have been rare in the UF offense.
Driskel knows what both he and the unit are capable of. In fact, it was against Tennessee last season that offensive coordinator Brent Pease’s attack erupted for 555 yards as Driskel passed for 219 yards and two touchdowns, and rushed for 81 more, in the third game of the season.
“It was the first time I’d really taken over a game,” he said.
Now it’s time to take better care of the game. Driskel knows exactly what that entails.
“First of all, don’t try to do too much as a quarterback,” he said. “Just go with what you’re coached and don’t try to do too much and hold onto the ball when you’re running. The (UM defense) did a good job of getting hats on the ball. We know that teams are going to be going for the ball this year. We’ve really got to work on ball security and really lock in, especially in the red zone.”
Muschamp backed his quarterback Monday, saying Driskel’s confidence is “fine” and saying some good things from the position showed up on tape.
Yes, Driskel missed Quinton Dunbar on what should have been an easy touchdown on a crossing route in the first half and also threw behind freshman Demarcus Robinson on a pair of tosses. Those were plays he needed to make. And they weren’t the only ones.
“There were four or five plays in the game he would like to have back, but he also made some really nice throws,” Muschamp said. “He stood in the pocket on a seam throw to Quinton and got smacked in the chin and made a heck of a throw. He was very accurate with the football. (Had) two drops. Without two drops, you’re 24 of 33 and feel a little different, if you take care of the ball in some other situations. He knows that.”
Driskel also knows his teammates have his back. They need to, considering no other player on the UF quarterback depth chart has ever thrown a pass in a college game.
“Our trust is there with Driskel,” sophomore tailback Matt Jones said.
Circling the QB wagon was key in the Gators locker room, especially after the lashing their quarterback took via social media.
“That’s just critics,” senior safety Jaylen Watkins said. “We, as a team, don’t let the outside get to us.”
For the Gators, this week — this next game — is about doing some work from the inside.
“It’s just getting back to the basics,” Driskel said. “For me, cleaning up the reads, taking what’s there and not trying to force anything. That’s what I’m going to have to do, and I really took that to heart.”