Undermanned Gators make impressive 2013 debut

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The introduction was impressive.

And that has nothing to do with former Gators star Errict Rhett’s lively go as Mr. Two Bits.

On a steamy and sticky day at The Swamp, the 2013 Gators wasted few precious drops of sweat Saturday afternoon in showing everyone they came to play despite the absence of several key players for various reasons.

The Gators had no Matt Jones to hand the ball to, no Jon Halapio to run behind, no Loucheiz Purifoy to lock down receivers and no Antonio Morrison to rattle somebody’s teeth. Defensive tackle Damien Jacobs wasn’t completely healthy and fellow defensive tackle Darious Cummings was suspended.

Instead of making excuses, the Gators rushed out of the tunnel and made plays.

Toledo received the opening kickoff, but all Florida’s defense needed was four snaps to force the up-tempo Rockets to punt. The Gators took over at their 16.

Eleven plays and 84 yards later, the Mack Brown Show concluded with Brown’s 1-yard touchdown run. Tim Tebow was Florida’s quarterback the last time the Gators scored on their opening drive of the season.

A lot has changed since 2009. Tebow’s NFL career is in doubt — he was cut by the Patriots on Saturday — and the Gators are now the run-it-down-your-throat, in-your-face kind of program Will Muschamp envisioned when he took over in 2011.

The perfect team in Muschamp’s eyes is one with no irreplaceable players. Every job every week is up for grabs.

That mentality prepared the Gators well for Saturday’s 24-6 win, the tone clearly set on those first two drives of the game.

“I announced to our football team last Thursday that we were going to be without some guys,” Muschamp said. “They knew who I was talking about. They made a mistake. We have consequences in our program. Our players understand that. They move forward.

“They’ve understood that we are not going to make excuses at Florida regardless of injury, sickness, whatever the situation may be. We’re just going to move forward.”

The Gators continued that forward progress on their first two drives of the second quarter, taking a 17-3 lead into halftime behind Brown’s 97 yards and two touchdowns.

Meanwhile, the defense did its job minus Morrison, Purifoy and Cummings, diffusing the Rockets offense to the tune of 205 total yards.

As for Florida’s offense racking up style points in the second half, that show was not on the schedule Saturday.

Gators quarterback Jeff Driskel took a couple of shots downfield but he handed off mostly to Brown and others filling in for Jones, who is expected to return for next week’s game at Miami following a serious viral infection that sidelined him in fall camp.

“We wanted to run the ball because of what they do offensively,” Muschamp said. “We did not want to get into an 80-, 90-play deal [for our defense]. Obviously we were down some defensive players.”

Valdez Showers, a former defensive back moved to running back in camp, caught four passes and had a 29-yard run. Brown reeled off a career-high 23-yard run. Mark Herndon had a 17-year run. True freshman Kelvin Taylor snapped off a 27-yard run.

And former linebacker-turned-fullback Gideon Ajagbe had two catches for 16 yards on a drive late in the third quarter, including a 4-yard touchdown reception from Driskel for Florida’s final score.

A lot of new faces in new places contributed.

“It just shows Coach that we can play with anybody and that we have been preparing well on the offensive side,” Ajagbe said. “I’m just happy to have the opportunity to catch both of those balls. It’s a team game. I play for the team. I don’t play for myself. I’m just happy that I could contribute.”

Driskel had a solid game in his 2013 debut, working off a blueprint that resembled the one the Gators used in 2012 to finish 11-2. Driskel finished 17 of 22 for 153 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions. He did fumble twice, losing one, an issue Muschamp wants to see corrected.

But as season openers go, the Gators sounded pleased at their 24th season-opening win in a row, the second-longest streak in the nation. Florida racked up 415 yards of total offense, doubling Toledo’s total.

“In the first half, we hurt ourselves on a couple of drives,” Driskel said. “Other than that, they couldn’t really stop anything we were throwing at them. I thought we distributed the ball well.”

The most impressive part about Saturday’s win was how unfazed the Gators were by any distractions related to missing several players.

Without Purifoy in the lineup, true freshman Vernon Hargreaves III took more snaps that perhaps he would otherwise. He came through with an interception that led to Ajagbe’s touchdown catch.

“You could see pretty much at every position there is depth,” linebacker Neiron Ball said.

“We feel comfortable with anybody we put out there because we prepare that way,” said linebacker Ronald Powell, who played his first game in 20 months due to two knee surgeries. “We trust each other.”

That trust was evident on a hot afternoon at The Swamp.

The Gators were missing some key players but they didn’t miss a beat.

That is Muschamp’s kind of team.

“That’s why you recruit. That’s why you have the deep roster. That’s why you recruit guys who don’t ask you about the depth chart 400 times,” Muschamp said. “You recruit guys that want to come in here and compete. Vernon Hargreaves didn’t ask me about the depth chart.”

But he did make an interception in his college debut. Not a bad way to say hello — for Hargreaves or the 2013 Gators.