FLORIDA FOOTBALL

Gators out to prove New Orleans was a fluke


Jeff Driskel and the Gators struggled from the outset in the Sugar Bowl in January, losing 33-23 to Louisville.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer
Published: Friday, August 30, 2013 at 8:21 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, August 30, 2013 at 8:21 p.m.

After rocking the Florida State Seminoles in their house in the regular-season finale, the Florida Gators strutted off to the Sugar Bowl last December expecting to put the exclamation point on a big-time turnaround season in Will Muschamp's second year.

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Jeff Driskel and the Gators struggled from the outset in the Sugar Bowl in January, losing 33-23 to Louisville.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer

Facts

Saturday

Toledo at Florida, 12:21 p.m. TV: WOGX
Radio: AM-850, 103.7 FM

Instead, the Gators staggered away from Bourbon Street with a giant question mark hovering over their heads.

As in, how did that happen?

How did a team that beat Johnny Football, that splattered South Carolina by 33 points, that wore down LSU and Florida State in the fourth quarter, get stomped by underdog Louisville?

It's a question, a mystery, that followed the Gators around throughout the offseason.

“After a great year, we went out and got dominated in all aspects,” junior quarterback Jeff Driskel said. “We've carried that throughout the whole offseason. We've heard about it all the time.

“You're only as good as your last game, so that's the last time we've been on the field. We've been really eager to get out and show that's not us. We're a lot better than how we played that day.”

The 33-23 loss to the Cardinals and former defensive coordinator Charlie Strong was more than just humbling. It took some of the shine off an 11-win season and stalled the momentum the Gators had generated with those defining wins over Texas A&M, LSU, South Carolina and Florida State.

The Gators open the season on Saturday hoping to bury the memory of the Sugar Bowl debacle and start regenerating the great momentum they had going into that game.

“That's not our team (the one that lost to Louisville). That's not us,” Driskel said. “We went out and got beat all around the field. We just want to show that's not us, and that's a fluke.”

Senior cornerback Jaylen Watkins said that performance, that loss, provided motivation throughout a long offseason.

“It was disappointing just because we had a great year and it left a sour taste in our mouth,” Watkins said. “We had to play through the whole spring and go through the whole camp remembering that's the last show we had in front of everybody.

“As a secondary we didn't play our best, too, so it's definitely motivation to go out and pick up where we started before the Louisville game and get this thing going again.”

The Gators not only would like to get it going again. They'd like to get it going again even better than a year ago.

As good as that 11-1 regular-season record looked, Florida was far from flawless in 2012. The Gators struggled with consistency on offense and had almost no downfield presence in the passing game. As a result, teams like Bowling Green, Louisiana and Jacksonville State were able to hang around with them into the fourth quarter.

One of the priorities heading into this season is increasing production in the passing game, especially down the field. Muschamp and offensive coordinator Brent Pease seem confident that is going to happen now that Driskel has a year of experience as the starter in Pease's offense.

“There's no question when you have your quarterback back and a guy that won 10 ballgames for you a year ago, you're further along,” Muschamp said. “And I feel good about the talent level around him up front, at the receiver position, at the running back position.

“I think the tight end position has improved itself through camp, so I think we're better at a lot of spots than we were a year ago. So, certainly, the comfort level with what we're going to be, offensively, is there.”

Driskel said he and the receivers are certainly more comfortable in the offense in Year 2 and he's confident the passing game will be more productive than last season.

“A ton more,” he said. “Another year in the offense, I know the routes and the receivers better. Also, the receivers know what they're doing a lot better. It's everyone working together, not just one person. Just being comfortable.”

The Gators will start finding out Saturday if they are significantly improved in the passing game and can create a better balance between the pass and the run.

Driskel said it's important for the Gators to get off to a fast, smooth start Saturday.

“It's huge,” he said. “Last year we came out and we struggled a little against Bowling Green. We didn't make too many big plays. We've stressed making the big play in this offense and we've shown it in camp. We did it in the summer, so we really want it to show up in the first game.

“We want to come out strong in the first half. Last year we were a better second-half team, but we want to play four quarters of good football, rather than just come in in the second half.”

Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or andreur@gvillesun.com. Also check out Andreu's blog at Gatorsports.com.

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