GAINESVILLE — Jeff Driskel worked tirelessly in the offseason to become the Gators' undisputed leader — on and off the field — and hoped to lead them to a national championship.
But in one play Saturday, the quarterback's dreams ended in a bittersweet afternoon for the No. 19 Gators.
In the process of defeating Tennessee 31-17 in their SEC opener at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, the Gators (2-1) lost Driskel for the season with a lower leg injury. Florida did not disclose details of the injury, saying only the junior needs surgery.
Driskel was hurt on the Gators' second possession, on a play in which he threw an interception Devaughn Swafford returned 62 yards for a touchdown that gave the Vols a 7-0 lead 5:37 in. Following the throw, Driskel fell to the ground and grabbed his lower leg.
"When I saw him go down — obviously, he got hit as he was throwing it — and I saw him look to the sideline and wave (for the training staff), I knew (it was serious)," Florida coach Will Muschamp said. "Jeff's as tough a kid as I've been around.
"When he looked to the sideline and waved, I knew it was not good. I hurt for him, and I hurt for us right now."
Ironically, Driskel's appendectomy just before fall camp might help save the Gators' season.
It thrust redshirt junior Tyler Murphy into the starters role for the first eight days of practice.
"The good Lord works in mysterious ways," Muschamp said.
When Murphy got his opportunity Saturday, he took full advantage. He was 8-of-14 for 134 yards, including a 52-yard touchdown, and rushed for 90 yards and a touchdown. His numbers weren't record breaking, but he played with a poise that didn't reveal he had never thrown a pass in college.
"We have a ton of faith in him," said receiver Solomon Patton, who had three receptions for 73 yards, including the 52-yard touchdown. "He gets reps with the (starters) in practice, and we've known all along what he can do."
The Gators managed to beat the Vols for the ninth consecutive time despite a mistake-filled first half that produced seven turnovers, three by Florida.
The defense — particularly during the first half — kept the Gators in the game. Trailing by seven, Florida got a first-quarter field goal set up by a fumble caused and recovered by sophomore Dante Fowler, a graduate of St. Petersburg's Lakewood High.
The defense also had a hand in two second-quarter touchdowns: Patton's that gave Florida a 10-7 lead set up by cornerback Brian Poole's interception and Mack Brown's 3-yard run that made it 17-7 just before halftime set up by lineman Darius Cummings' 30-yard interception return.
"I think we played lights out," Cummings said. "We had a lapse in the second half, but I think, collectively, we played really well."
In the first half, the Gators held the Vols (2-2, 0-1) to 31 yards of offense (5 passing). Tennessee finished with 220 yards and was 5-of-13 on third-down conversions The Gators defense entered Saturday first in the nation in third-down conversions and now has allowed opponents to convert only 7 of 37 (18.9 percent).
"The first half, I thought they dominated the line of scrimmage with their defensive front," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said.
Florida will move forward with Murphy as its starter, but Muschamp said the offense won't drastically change.
"They are very similar guys," he said of Murphy and Driskel. "They are athletic, can move around and can do some different things for us. There are some throws that Tyler probably likes a little better than Jeff, and we'll tailor those as far as the throwing game is concerned. But we'll make those adjustments as we go forward."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]