COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- All the ingredients for a disaster were certainly in place.
A quarterback making his first start, on the road, in a charged atmosphere, in a nationally televised game. It could have been a debacle, the type of performance that can damage a young player’s psyche and fill him full of doubt. Only nobody told Jeff Driskel.
Florida’s sophomore quarterback stared all of those things down and turned in a rock-solid performance in the Gators’ 20-17 victory over Texas A&M in front of 87,114 at Kyle Field on Saturday afternoon. Driskel not only beat the Aggies in their first Southeastern Conference game, he also validated Will Muschamp’s decision to make him the Gators’ starter over Jacoby Brissett -- which certainly should be comforting since UF has another tough road game next weekend at Tennessee.
Driskel completed 13 of 16 passes for 162 yards and ran 14 times for 8 yards -- including a big gain in the fourth quarter during the Gators’ game-sealing drive -- to lead Florida to its first victory over an SEC Western Division opponent since Oct. 24, 2009. One of his three incompletions was a drop of what should have been a touchdown pass. He was sacked eight times, but he did not turn the ball over.
"They asked me after the game, 'What’d you learn about Jeff Driskel?' I said, 'Nothing. I knew it going in the game,' " Muschamp said. "I didn’t learn anything that I didn’t already know. I mean that as a very big compliment to him. I didn’t learn anything today. I knew it."
What Muschamp knew is that the 6-foot-3, 237-pound Driskel gives the 18th-ranked Gators (2-0, 1-0 SEC) the best chance to win games. UF’s offensive line is not yet the dominant unit that Muschamp wants and the Gators’ receivers have been woeful underachievers for two-plus seasons. Driskel’s mobility, both as a scrambler and a runner, adds an extra element to an offense that has little big-play capability.
He showed how dangerous he can be late in the third and fourth quarters. Driskel ran for 14 yards on a third-and-5 play and helped extend a Gators drive four more plays. Though UF eventually punted, the Gators were able to pin the Aggies inside their own 10-yard line. Late in the fourth quarter Driskel broke free for a 21-yard run to the Texas A&M 34-yard line, a play that sealed UF’s victory with about 1:30 remaining.
"So proud of him," left guard James Wilson said. "He did a great job. ... (Driskel was) cool, calm and collected. He told the O-line to keep blocking and make it happen."
Driskel’s performance certainly wasn’t perfect. He held on to the ball too long several times, which played a role in the eight sacks, and should have thrown it away in several instances instead of taking a sack. But that’s part of the growing process of a young quarterback. His next challenge comes Saturday at Tennessee. Neyland Stadium holds more than 100,000 people and it can be an intimidating place to play, but Driskel has already proved he can handle hostile environments.
Plus, his confidence continues to grow the more he plays.
"Any game experience is going to get you more comfortable," Driskel said.
It looks like he’s starting to settle into a pretty good groove.
The Gators obviously don’t want to lose any starters, but if there’s an area where they can weather it more than any other it’s in the secondary. S Josh Evans suffered a right shoulder injury against the Aggies and his status for the UT game is unclear. But the Gators are deep in the secondary, especially with the return of CB Jeremy Brown. Valdez Showers and Jabari Gorman filled in ably for Evans after he went down and UF also can move CB Cody Riggs to safety.
WR Solomon Patton has finally found a role on the team: He’s the jet sweep guy. Percy Harvin ran it to perfection during his career and while Patton is not at that level, he’s had success with the play. He ran it three times for 31 yards against Texas A&M and has run it four times for 37 yards this season.