GAINESVILLE — Florida's roster was depleted by eight players, including five starters. But under coach Will Muschamp's mantra, the Gators are expected to respond as if nobody's missing.
Saturday afternoon, they did so accordingly.
Playing at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in oppressive heat, surrounded by loads of empty seats, the No. 10 Gators relied on an early dominating rushing game, solid defense and big plays from newcomers to defeat Toledo 24-6 in front of an announced crowd of 83,604.
It was the 24th consecutive season-opening victory for Florida, which played without three offensive starters due to injuries and five players overall due to suspensions.
"I announced to our team last Thursday that we were going to be down some guys," Muschamp said. "I told them exactly who they were. They made a mistake, and we have consequences in our program.
"Our players understand that, and we move forward. They've understood that we're not going to make excuses at Florida regardless of injury, sickness, whatever the situation may be. So we're just going to move forward. That's why you recruit, and that's why you have a deep roster."
The roster's depth was evident immediately.
Junior Mack Brown had six of the Gators' first 11 carries. On their first possession, he rushed six times for 39 yards, including a 1-yard touchdown that made it 7-0 with 6:46 remaining in the first quarter.
Brown started for Matt Jones, the Armwood High graduate who's recovering from a viral infection, and finished with 112 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries.
Meanwhile, Jeff Driskel, beginning his second season as the starting quarterback, completed his first seven passes, completed passes to eight receivers and finished 17-of-22 for 153 yards and a touchdown.
"In the first half, we kind of hurt ourselves a couple of drives. But other than that, they couldn't really stop anything we were throwing at them," said Driskel, who lost a fumble while sacked during the second quarter, leading to a Rockets field goal.
"I thought we distributed the ball well. We were throwing the ball well. A lot of guys caught the balls and made big plays."
For all of Florida's offensive power in the first half, recording 242 yards and taking a 17-6 lead, it had just 51 yards and seemed poised to go scoreless during the third quarter until a momentum-changer from freshman cornerback Vernon Hargreaves.
The graduate of Tampa's Wharton High picked off a pass from Terrance Owens, setting up a 4-yard touchdown pass from Driskel to Gideon Ajagbe.
"We're very happy for him," senior cornerback Jaylen Watkins said of Hargreaves. "We lost some guys last year, and we need those kind of guys to come in and step up. We look forward to it and embrace them. He really did exactly what we asked him (all game)."
Despite the win, there were signs of the problems that plagued the Gators last season — most notably penalties. The Gators were 115th among 124 Division I-A teams last season at 68.8 yards per game. Saturday, they were penalized 10 times for 70 yards. Three of the Gators' four offside penalties came on third or fourth down.
"The self-inflicted issues hurt us again," Muschamp said. "We've got to secure the ball a little better. We've got to protect a little better. But I'm very pleased with the win. Whenever you line up, you want to win."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @TBTimes_Gators.