Despite big losses, Florida expects no sympathy from Kentucky


Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel is helped up by trainers after his season-ending injury against Tennessee. With Driskel and Dominique Easley out for the season, the Gators will have to rely on backups to step up.

Doug Finger/Staff photographer
Published: Friday, September 27, 2013 at 7:12 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, September 27, 2013 at 7:12 p.m.

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Only four games into their schedule, the No. 20 Florida Gators have already endured a season's worth (or more) of change and adversity. Yet they gamely cling to the same No. 1 goal they set for themselves last spring.

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Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel is helped up by trainers after his season-ending injury against Tennessee. With Driskel and Dominique Easley out for the season, the Gators will have to rely on backups to step up.

Doug Finger/Staff photographer

“We have one goal here and that's to get to Atlanta and win an SEC championship,” junior outside linebacker Ronald Powell said earlier this week.

Given UF's demanding league schedule (at LSU, Georgia, at South Carolina), everyone knew when the goal was established that it was going to be a long, hard road to Atlanta.

And that was before.

Before the Gators (2-1) lost their star kick returner (Andre Debose) and their starting right tackle (Chaz Green) for the season to injuries.

Before their starting tailback (Matt Jones) and starting right guard (Jon Halapio) missed all of preseason camp (and early games) with illness and injury.

Before numerous other starters missed playing time and games with injuries in the first three games.

Before their most important offensive player (starting quarterback Jeff Driskel) and their most dominant defensive player (tackle Dominique Easley) fell to season-ending injuries only days apart this past week.

With all that's happened, that road to Atlanta is starting to look like a potholed, dead-end street for a team that looks a whole lot different than it did heading into the season.

“I mean, that's just the game we play,” Halapio said. “You just have to expect that people are going to get injured. I didn't know it was going to be this fast for people going down, but that's just the game we play.”

It's been rough, almost devastating, but like UF coach Will Muschamp has so often said, no one in the SEC is going to feel sorry for the Gators.

Florida certainly will get no sympathy from Kentucky tonight (or any other night). The Wildcats (1-2) have not beaten the Gators since 1986. That adds up to a monumental (and almost unexplainable) 26-game losing streak for Kentucky in the series.

Given Florida's delicate condition — Driskel and Easley out; Tyler Murphy making his first start at quarterback, in a hostile environment — could tonight be the night the streak ends?

Some UK players seem a little more confident than usual coming into a game with Florida.

“I think it's a very (winnable) game. I know it is,” senior middle linebacker Avery Williamson said earlier this week. “You have to go in with that attitude and come out with a win.”

Defensive end Za'Darius Smith, a junior college transfer, refers to Florida as just “an OK team.”

“I'm not going to say they're all that,” he said. “Hey, it's the SEC.”

Muschamp said the streak will be not be a factor in tonight's game, and UK coach Mark Stoops, who is making his SEC debut tonight, pretty much agrees.

“You've heard me talk enough that we won't get into all that,” Stoops said. “Sure, I think it's motivation. I do. I think it needs to be talked about, but that can't be the focal point. We have to get better each and every day, each and every game. That's really what we're worried about, and that's been my message since I've been here: just to get better.”

What figures to be a bigger factor than the streak is how well (or poorly) the Gators play with a new starting quarterback and without their defensive leader and most dominant defensive lineman.

Murphy was poised and efficient coming off the bench for Driskel in the win over Tennessee a week ago. But the atmosphere will be decidedly different on the road, at night. And the UK defense, which played well against star Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater two weeks ago, has film on Murphy and had a week to prepare for him.

“I'll have butterflies, I'm sure,” Murphy said. “I'll be anxious, but, you know, I'll get out there and maybe complete my first pass. Once I get hit, I think I'll be fine. But I don't think it will be as bad as it was (against Tennessee as far as being nervous).”

Murphy's coaches and teammates expressed confidence in their new (and inexperienced) quarterback throughout the week.

“I can't compliment him enough how he came in and responded and handled the situation (against UT),” Muschamp said. “We have a lot of confidence in him. He's really taken a step forward.

“He's improved tremendously as a passer. Taking the ball to the right spots. He's always been a very intelligent guy. A really good athlete. We will not change much of who we are offensively.”

Stoops is a long-time defensive coach who likely will throw plenty of pressure Murphy's way tonight with blitzes and stunts.

“We've just got to protect him,” Halapio said. “When he came in there (in the UT game), the confidence that he had and to perform the way he did, you just want to block for that type of guy. Especially now. He is almost our last option at quarterback.”

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

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