Florida finds its quarterback, resiliency

Florida finds its quarterback, resiliency

Published Sep. 16, 2012 12:14 a.m. ET

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Neyland Stadium has the ability to inflate.

Seating more than 100,000 bodies within its confines for this weekend's national spotlight game, its outer edges swelled with overwhelming orange shirts and checkerboard overalls. It bounced and bobbed as No. 23 Tennessee took a first-half lead with its vaunted aerial attack. For all that went right for the better part of sixty minutes Saturday night, it seemed that the historic stadium might just be floating.

But like so many times before against Florida, it turned out to be hot air, a false sense of security.

Then Jeff Driskel and his offense took out a pin -- and popped it.

Neyland Stadium, as evidenced in Tennessee's 37-20 meltdown against the No. 18 Gators, has the ability to deflate as well.

"Very resilient for our kids, they overcome coaching an awful lot," said Florida coach Will Muschamp after his team outscored the Volunteers 24-0 over the final 18 minutes of play. "I felt very confident and comfortable in this football team all along. But you never know until you get in these situations."

Driskel, the No. 1 quarterback recruit out of high school two years ago, lived up to his billing for the first time in his career. Nothing has been given to him to this point. He’s taken it. Driskel was lost in a quarterback shuffle last season -- not to mention the injury in his first start against Alabama -- and a position battle with Jacoby Brissett raged throughout this summer's camp. He was not even given the job outright in Week One.

By game No. 3, though, the job looks wrapped up. Driskel finished 14-for-20 passing for 219 yards and two touchdowns against Tennessee.

The sophomore "disappointment" has morphed into a late-game playmaker, winning back-to-back SEC road games (the first coming against Texas A&M) to propel the Gators to the top of the division standings.

"I don't think (my teammates) ever doubted me or anything like that," said Driskel, who is characteristically short and articulate in his responses. "I still have a long way to go."

True as that may be, his performance extended the Gators eight-game winning streak over the Volunteers, an embarrassing trend that led many Volunteer fans to audibly clamor for coach Derek Dooley's job as they filed out of the stadium.

"(Florida) did a real good job late in the third, early in the fourth, and we could never recover," Dooley said.

Unlike so many blowouts before in this rivalry, it all went sour for Tennessee just when things were tasting sweet. The Volunteers held a 20-13 lead as the third quarter waned, and the Gators’ offense was relatively stagnant. But then Florida multi-purpose back Trey Burton got the call. He took a sweep down the Florida sideline -- shaking off a tackle from corner Marsalis Teague, who, fittingly, is the only player to start the past four years of his program's losing streak -- and sprinted 80 yards for the touchdown.

Just like that, tie ballgame and the enthusiastic air seeped out of Neyland and down the Tennessee River.

From there, the floodgates opened. Driskel rose as heralded Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray fell, a potential case study in draft stock and resiliency. Following a terrible interception by Bray, a forced-over-the-middle throw that too often gets him in trouble, Driskel delivered a lightning-quick scoring drive before the quarter ended -- a 23-yard pass to Jordan Reed in the front corner of the end zone. In three minutes, the Volunteers watched what could have been fade into another fourth quarter of misery against the Gators.

Driskel would pile on 168 total yards (39 rushing) in the second half, including another touchdown strike.

"I expect him to respond the right way. I expect him to respond with toughness," said Muschamp, who is not one to overhype his own accomplishments or those of his players. "We need to continue to play well around him."

Florida's small contingent in the packed house selfishly hoarded the joy one more time. The Gators are 3-0 once again — identical to last season’s start which ended in a 7-6 record — but Muschamp and his players swear the product is different, more refined. The wins carry more weight, the attitude is one of defiance and determination.

They just beat their rivals for the eighth straight meeting. They dominated the second half for the third-consecutive outing. They have their quarterback.

As a reward, Florida, if not in the SEC East driver's seat, is at least sitting shotgun for the early portion of this season's joyride. It is two conference road wins into the schedule, and although favorites Georgia and South Carolina still loom large, an undefeated start is nothing to scoff at.

There is reason to feel pride.

“Are we where we want to be? Heck no. Let's not start celebrating here. Let's be realistic," Muschamp said. "The great thing about 3-0 is you have a chance to be 4-0."

Right now, Florida is simply fighting to avoid its bubble being burst.