Florida Gators: Skyler Mornhinweg
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Here are five things to watch as the Florida Gators (4-7, 3-5 in the Southeastern Conference) play host to the Florida State Seminoles (11-0, 8-0 in the Atlantic Coast Conference) on Saturday at noon ET (ESPN) in the final game of the regular season.
1. Stopping Jameis: Florida's defense has gradually gotten worse with almost every passing week during a six-game losing streak. The Gators gave up 429 yards to FCS Georgia Southern last week, and while those yards were all on the ground, simply getting stops has become an issue. Injuries have continued to pile up, and the timing couldn't be worse with Heisman Trophy candidate Jameis Winston in town. The Seminoles are a juggernaut on offense, having already scored a school- and ACC-record 607 points this season. Winston leads the nation in passing efficiency, has thrown the third-most TD passes (32) and is second in the nation in yards per attempt (11.1). "He can make all the throws and he does make all the throws," UF defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said. "He’s got great confidence in his arm and you can understand why. It’ll be our biggest challenge of the year."
2. Stopping the FSU running game: The Gators know Winston will be a handful, but it would be wise not to overlook the Seminoles' ground game. FSU actually runs (399 attempts) more than it passes (344). The Noles will look to challenge that suddenly suspect Florida run defense. FSU junior tailback Devonta Freeman has 808 yards (6.2 yards per carry) this season and appears on his way to being the Seminoles' first 1,000-yard rusher since Warrick Dunn in 1996. James Wilder Jr. also has been coming on strong after missing FSU's game against NC State with a concussion. Wilder has run for six touchdowns and 285 yards on 22 carries (13.0 YPC) in his last four games.
3. Florida's quarterback: For the third week in a row, the Gators are preparing redshirt freshman QB Skyler Mornhinweg to play. Junior Tyler Murphy, who is listed as questionable, has thrown some passes in practice the last couple of weeks, but is clearly still feeling the effects of a sprained AC joint in his right shoulder. The problem for Florida is the limitations Mornhinweg presents to an already foundering offense. If he makes his third career start, there might not be much that can be expected in the way of sudden improvement in Mornhinweg's arm strength or decision-making. He did, however, direct a pass-heavy two-minute offense in the fourth quarter of last week's loss to GSU. Perhaps with nothing to lose in the season finale, the UF coaching staff will allow the Gators quarterback -- whoever it is -- to take some shots down the field.
4. Can the Gators score any points? With Mornhinweg likely at the helm and the Gators' kicking game a season-long sore spot, there is a real possibility Florida could be held off the scoreboard. Factor in a Seminoles defense that is hungry for revenge after being gutted in last season's 37-26 home loss to Florida, and this game could be a feeding frenzy. FSU has the nation's No. 2 pass defense and leads the nation in interceptions with 23. As it did last year, Florida State has one of the nation's best run defenses, allowing just four rushing TDs in 11 games this season. Florida's beleaguered offensive line expects to have its hands full up the middle against defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, who has 43 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks.
5. Familiar faces: One of the reasons this series, which UF leads 34-21-2, is so special is the familiarity of most of the players. There are 36 players on both sidelines who were once high school teammates. FSU has 93 players from the state of Florida on its roster. Florida has 83. Many of these players knocked helmets in high school grudge matches, so the old adage that familiarity breeds contempt is certainly fitting. For the head coaches, however, it's done nothing of the sort. Florida's Will Muschamp and his FSU counterpart, Jimbo Fisher, remain close friends after first working together under Auburn coach Terry Bowden in the mid-90s and again under LSU coach Nick Saban. They even share a beach house in Panama City, Fla. Bragging rights are on the line on Saturday, as their head-to-head record is 1-1.
This is what it's come down to: The once-mighty Gators are merely a speed bump in the way of the hated Seminoles' ascension to the mountaintop of a BCS championship berth. Florida may lack the firepower to compete with the nation's No. 2 team, but the Gators still insist they have the fire to pull a colossal upset.
What a year it's been for Florida State and Florida. Neither team can wait for the regular season to end on Saturday -- the Noles so they can begin their quest for postseason glory; the Gators so they can begin to wash out the sour taste of one of the worst seasons in school history.
It's hard to fully grasp just how far these archrivals have gone in opposite directions since they played one year ago.
While the Seminoles (11-0, 8-0 in the ACC) have run roughshod over their conference, Florida (4-7, 3-5 SEC) has fallen flat and lost six in a row, including its final five league games.
Both schools have made history this season. Florida State scored a school-record 80 points last week against Idaho and has already broken the school and ACC records for points in a season, while Florida lost to an FCS opponent for the first time ever. With last Saturday's home loss to Georgia Southern, Florida clinched a losing season for the first time since 1979 and will see its 22-year bowl streak come to an end.
One last goal remains for the Gators -- beat their in-state rival.
"We've got to treat this like our bowl game," senior guard Jon Halapio said. "It really is our bowl game."
Another Florida senior, cornerback Jaylen Watkins, said it would "change the feeling around here" to shock the Noles on Saturday.
"It’s motivating for everybody in that locker room," he said. "You want to go win this game and try to duplicate what we did last year, come out with a win and create some short fields for the offense. They’re having a really good season, and we can end off on a good [note]."
Looking back at the way Florida defeated Florida State 37-26 in Tallahassee last season, Muschamp might consider it a proof-of-concept performance. The Gators executed their coach's philosophical approach to perfection with suffocating defense and a power running game that piled up yards against what was then the No. 1 rush defense in the nation. Florida was a national-championship contender ranked No. 6 entering that game and went on to play in a BCS bowl.
"Looking at last year's game, we're just going to try to emulate that," Florida quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg said. "We had some success against them last year, so we think we can have some success against them this year, too."
Mornhinweg, an inexperienced redshirt freshman who started the season No. 3 on the QB depth chart, could draw his third career start on Saturday against a revenge-minded Seminole defense if junior Tyler Murphy (questionable) misses his third straight game with a shoulder injury.
Either way, the quarterback position will be the most glaring difference in the two schools' contrasting seasons.
"They do have a stable quarterback," Watkins said of Heisman Trophy candidate Jameis Winston. "We've had both our quarterbacks go down this year."
The injuries for Florida are impossible to ignore. When linebackers Michael Taylor and Alex Anzalone miss Saturday's game, it will bring the number of players who have missed one game or more this season to a staggering 23, including 15 starters.
“Sometimes they come in bunches, sometimes they don’t,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said on Monday. “Injuries change your football team. That’s why I keep talking about our youth development. You don’t know when one of those things is going to occur. You have a plan for them, but those plans have to work.
"When you have the number they’ve had, I can understand it’s been very difficult.”
Florida's youth development plan will be on full display on Saturday, but for the Gators' 15 seniors there is only the bitterness of ending their careers on such a low note while their biggest rival comes in on such a high note.
"It’s pretty frustrating," senior receiver Solomon Patton said. "That’s our rival, and to see them actually on top right now and doing real good, it’s pretty hard to see that."
The way their season has gone has left many a Florida fan sour and inconsolable. The idea of ruining the Noles' unbeaten season, however, offers a sweet consolation.
"This being our last game," Patton said, "we definitely plan on doing that."
1. Florida needs Tyler Murphy back: All week the Florida coaching staff expressed its confidence in third-string quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg by saying he was ready to use more of the playbook in his next start. And sure enough he threw a pass on the third play of the game, which was a sharp contrast from the previous week, when Mornhinweg threw just two passes in the first half. But any hopes for an expanded offense went out the window at the end of the Gators' first possession after Mornhinweg threw two bad passes into the end zone that should have been intercepted. Mornhinweg was 4-of-10 passing for 6 yards in the first half and 6-of-13 for 14 yards after three quarters. Perhaps a bright spot was his fourth-quarter performance, when he completed 8-of-12 passes for 108 yards and a touchdown. After the game, UF coach Will Muschamp said he would not rule out Murphy for next week's game against No. 2 FSU.
2. Clutch defense has disappeared: During its 11-1 season in 2012, Florida displayed a knack for making halftime adjustments and shutting down its opponents. That certainly hasn't happened this season, as the Gators have bent and broken lately when the team needs its defense the most. After Saturday's loss, Muschamp seemed to indicate that the offense's inability to score is at least partially to blame. Florida gave up 429 yards on the ground but was unable to score enough points to force Georgia Southern out of its basic scheme. "We got gapped out in some situations. But you've also got to change the scoreboard offensively," he said. "You've got to be able to change the scoreboard, and we just struggled scoring points offensively. It's been a week-in, week-out occurrence, and it's my job to get it fixed, and we will get it fixed."
3. The injury bug: None of the UF players or coaches want to use the rash of injuries this season as an excuse. It's just something they all mention every time they're asked about what's gone wrong this fall. Saturday was another example of just how snakebitten the Gators have been with injuries. Already missing starting middle linebacker Antonio Morrison (out for the season after knee surgery), the Gators lost backup Michael Taylor to a knee injury in the second quarter. Taylor had been playing well, too, snagging his team-leading third fumble recovery of the season. But then it got ridiculous, as Taylor's backup, true freshman Alex Anzalone, dislocated his shoulder. Outside linebacker Darrin Kitchens also missed time with a shoulder injury. And at one point, the Gators were using a senior walk-on who wasn't even on the game-day roster in David Campbell to help defend a triple-option offense that was hitting on all cylinders. Talk about ouch.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Just when it appeared Florida's season of discontent could get no worse, it did.
The Gators lost to an FCS opponent for the first time in school history Saturday, and with that 26-20 loss to Georgia Southern, UF (4-7, 3-5 in the SEC) has its first losing season since 1979, as well as an end to a 22-year run of bowl games that was the longest active streak in the nation.
And Florida paid Georgia Southern $550,000 to schedule Saturday's contest.
Was it the worst loss in school history? The most humiliating? Does it matter at this point?
A season that began with promise and a 4-1 start has spiraled into a free fall with a six-game losing streak of which few inside the program can make sense. Facing the media Saturday and tasked with explaining another numbing low point, head coach Will Muschamp struggled to find new words or explanations for the state of his program.
"Very disappointed for our program," he said. "An embarrassment in this situation."
"You've got to be able to change the scoreboard, and we just struggled scoring points offensively," he said. "It's been a week-in, week-out occurrence, and it's my job to get it fixed, and we will get it fixed. ...
"We've just got to keep working at what we're doing. We're struggling offensively, and it has infected our entire team right now.”
On Saturday, however, Florida's defense shouldered as much of the blame, if not more, for another staggering loss.
Georgia Southern's 429 yards rushing were the fourth most Florida has allowed in school history. The Eagles also won without completing a pass (0-for-3).
Muschamp said earlier in the week that the Florida coaching staff began working on its defensive game plan for Georgia Southern in the offseason. But long running plays -- one each by GSU's quarterback (45 yards), tailback (66) and fullback (53) -- either scored or set up three of the Eagles' four touchdowns.
"It hurts," junior safety Cody Riggs said. "We didn't watch what we were supposed to be watching on certain plays, and those six, seven, eight plays are the ones that got them all of those yards."
It didn't help that Florida was playing without starting middle linebacker Antonio Morrison. Or that backup Michael Taylor injured the MCL in his right knee in the second quarter and did not return. Or that Taylor's replacement, true freshman Alex Anzalone, separated his shoulder during the game.
Injuries handcuffed the Gators' offense, as well. Starting quarterback Tyler Murphy, the backup at the start of the season, missed his second straight game with a nagging shoulder injury, forcing the Gators to turn again to redshirt freshman Skyler Mornhinweg.
But Florida was facing a team with similar injury problems. Georgia Southern, which plays within the FCS limit of 65 scholarships, has suffered 19 injuries this season, including 13 to starters. As a result, the Eagles have struggled to a 7-4 record (4-4 in the Southern Conference), including losses to Samford, Wofford and Appalachian State.
"I know [the Gators] have had a tough year. They've had a lot of injuries. So have we," GSU coach Jeff Monken said after his team stormed the field at Ben Hill Griffin stadium and lingered to enjoy the biggest win in program history. "We've got a lot of guys playing out there that weren't our starters at the beginning of the year and wouldn't have been starters right now had other guys been healthy. But we've continued to improve, and as those guys said, we've continued to fight."
The same cannot be said of Florida.
The Gators' patchwork offensive line struggled to run and pass block against its FCS foe, forcing a number of direct snaps, jet sweeps and wildcat plays in order to catch the defense off guard, despite the fact that the Eagles' starting defensive linemen averaged just over 6-foot-1 and 270 pounds. Mornhinweg had 6 yards passing at halftime. Florida rushed for 111 yards in the first half but just 46 in the second.
"We came out flat as a team," senior offensive guard Jon Halapio said. "We didn't play as a team today. We didn't communicate. We didn't block together. We didn't run the ball as efficient. That's something that we preached early on in the week, to not take this group of men lightly. They came out here and played their tails off. This was their bowl game. They had nothing to lose. We took them lightly, and we got outworked, outplayed, outphysicaled. You call it, it happened."
Now what happens at Florida is a week of preparation for arch-rival Florida State, followed by a merciful end to a painful season.
"As far as not going to a bowl game, I'm not gonna lie, I never would have seen that coming, coming to Florida," Riggs said. "That's very upsetting. A losing season, even though we were plagued by injuries, like I said, there's no excuses."
Without the excuse of injuries, however, the historic losses this season could throw into question the votes of confidence Muschamp received just more than a week ago from athletic director Jeremy Foley and UF president Bernie Machen.
Losing to Georgia Southern could have significant implications if the outcry from Florida fans is heard. Despite the negativity and the demoralizing losing streak, the Gators coaching staff still has the full faith of its players.
"We're not concerned," Riggs said. "I know that a lot of people around here have Coach Muschamp's back. He's a great coach, best coach I ever had. We're not worried about that. I've learned more under him than I have under any coach ever.
"Yeah, it's about winning. But some stuff you just can't control. We've had a lot of hardships this year. Not using that as an excuse again, but it's just a rough year for us."
1. The level of enthusiasm: The Gators return home after completing their SEC schedule with five consecutive losses. Against an FCS opponent, there is always the possibility of a letdown in terms of the players' focus and passion. Do they just want this nightmare season to be over? Will they mail it in? There is certainly a chance the Gators will take the field only to find a half-filled stadium, as many irate fans have promised to stop attending games while their team struggles. On the other hand, Florida should motivation to end its long losing streak, and an overmatched opponent could be just the ticket to winning back some of those disappointed fans.
2. Defending the dreaded triple-option: It won't be easy. Florida coach Will Muschamp said the team "spent a lot of time in the offseason preparing and looking at different teams and how they handled this because it's so different from what we've faced." Georgia Southern totaled 341 yards against Alabama's stout defense in 2011, so the Eagles have everyone's full attention. The Gators defense, which ranks No. 15 against the run (allowing 115.1 yards a game) seems to understand its task at hand and Georgia Southern's capability of causing embarrassment. The triple-option attack forces defenses to play mistake-free and with great discipline while also defending big plays in the passing game that can come from just about anywhere on the field.
3. Who starts at quarterback? Starter Tyler Murphy (shoulder) missed last Saturday's game at South Carolina and is listed as questionable against GSU. He did get some throws in this week during practice, but Skyler Mornhinweg remains poised to make his second career start. Mornhinweg led a very conservative offense against the formidable Gamecocks defense, but Muschamp and offensive coordinator Brent Pease said this week they believe the redshirt freshman can handle an expanded playbook and more of a look in the passing game. The Gators might be tempted to keep Murphy on the sideline as a Plan B vs. the Eagles, considering how much Florida wants Murphy to be healthy for the regular-season finale against No. 2 Florida State.
4. Momentum: Florida fell short of winning in Columbia, S.C., last week, but the Gators returned home with a measure of pride and confidence after nearly pulling off a surprising upset. Unlike the previous four games in its losing streak, Florida got off to a fast start against the Gamecocks. A first-quarter touchdown gave the Gators their first lead in a game since a 3-0 advantage at LSU on Oct. 12. Florida also had a 14-6 lead at halftime at South Carolina, its first advantage at the break since a 17-7 lead over Arkansas on Oct. 5. It will be interesting to see if the Gators can shake off the disappointment of their second-half collapse last week and reclaim the momentum they generated in the first half.
5. Anyone want to kick field goals? Two missed field goals against the Gamecocks might well have been the difference between winning and losing (not to mention staying home during bowl season). Florida has enough problems on offense to contend with, but when the Gators get bogged down in or near the red zone, a special kind of anxiety takes over on fourth down. After enjoying the luxury of record-breaking kicker Caleb Sturgis and his 79.5 percent field-goal accuracy for the previous four seasons, UF has struggled. Redshirt freshman Austin Hardin, the nation's No. 1 kicker prospect in the Class of 2012, has the strongest leg and was supposed to be the answer. However, he's made 4-of-11 field goals (36.4 percent). Senior Brad Phillips made a 28-yard field goal against Arkansas on Oct. 5 but also missed an extra point. Junior walk-on Francisco Velez has made 4-of-5 field goals but has limited range. The next time Florida is in field-goal range, the Gators might just want to go for it on fourth down.
The opponent? Then-No. 10 South Carolina. The scene? Rowdy Williams-Brice Stadium. The intimidator? Gamecocks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, widely regarded as the top prospect in next April's NFL draft.
"Oh yeah, he’s a great player. It was great, great atmosphere," he recollected with a smile. "Couldn’t ask for really any other better stage to play on. It was pretty sweet."
Mornhinweg, who entered this season No. 3 on the depth chart, said he felt prepared for the game. Offensive coordinator Brent Pease agreed, although Mornhinweg didn't know he would start until the day before the game, as Florida made the decision to sit starter Tyler Murphy with a sore throwing shoulder.
"I think early in the week [Mornhinweg] still approached it like he was going to be the guy," Pease said. "He's a young kid. He's eager. He understands preparation. His dad's a coach. His approach was good. He took all the reps so every day you knew he was trying to build off of that."
Mornhinweg downplayed the nerves that gathered in what turned out to be a 19-14 loss, and the Gators played an inspired game around him with the offensive line and the running game absorbing much of the pressure.
"I thought he played well, but there were a few miscommunications. I wouldn't say that was his fault being out there," Murphy said on Monday. "I thought he played well. I thought he controlled the things he could control. I thought he did a good job managing and controlling the atmosphere and not letting it get to him, and being calm and poised and just carrying himself with confidence.
"The team really had his back and [was] behind him. I thought he did a good job of leading the way. We almost came out with the victory."
Mornhinweg gave Florida a chance to win, but it was clear that his inexperience necessitated a limited game plan. In fact, he attempted just five passes until there was less than seven minutes remained in the game. Pease explained the conservative game plan on Tuesday, saying it had less to do with Mornhinweg's limitations and more to do with Clowney.
"Understand that last week was really based around No. 7 on their team, too," Pease said. "That guy's the best player in the nation. He can change a game, cause a fumble, pick the ball up and run. Going in, our plan was really designed to make sure that we were going to do things that [Clowney] couldn't change the momentum of the game.
"We need to expect more of Skyler now. I think he can handle it. I've got confidence in him that he can."
As Florida prepares to face FCS opponent Georgia Southern in the Swamp on Saturday, the Gators have the dual objective of trying to get Murphy back on the field while continuing to work with Mornhinweg.
Murphy, who sprained the AC joint in his throwing shoulder in the LSU game on Oct. 12 and aggravated it in the Gators' Nov. 9 loss to Vanderbilt, described his attempts last week to practice and try to make himself available for the South Carolina game.
"It was just painful," he said. "There wasn’t much velocity and stuff like that on the ball so it wasn’t coming out pretty."
This week, Murphy has progressed from jogging on Monday and working with Pease on the game plan to throwing on Tuesday. Florida coach Will Muschamp updated Murphy's status on Wednesday to questionable, saying he would throw again in Wednesday's practice.
"Right now Tyler Murphy is questionable," Muschamp said. "He threw a little bit yesterday, and we'll see what else he can do today and we'll go from there.
"If we had to play today, Skyler would start and be ready to go in the game. He had a good day yesterday. So we'll see what Tyler can do on Thursday, and as we move closer to the weekend, we'll see where it is."
With South Carolina's defense in the rear-view mirror, Muschamp said he expects Mornhinweg to be able to handle more of the offense if he makes his second career start on Saturday.
"I think he can handle more," Muschamp said. "I think a lot of our plan was based on their front and Clowney and [Florida's offensive line] being able to protect for his first start and a lot of those situations. When you move past that, he'll be able to do more."
For a team that's been beaten up by injuries, opponents and lately its own fans, the Gators showed a lot of fight in losing 19-14 at South Carolina.
After a lackluster effort in a staggering, historic loss at home to Vanderbilt the week before, UF players' passion made an obvious return from the opening kickoff at Williams-Brice Stadium.
“"I'm extremely proud of our players and the way they continued to fight in the game," coach Will Muschamp said afterward. "A lot of negativity out there and these guys pulled together and showed you what those guys are about.
There's a lot of negativity out there, and some of our fans need to get a grip. They really do. They've got a bunch of kids in that locker room fighting their butt off. They can criticize me all they want. I'm great with that. They pay me enough money to deal with that. But those kids don't. They really don't, and they fought their butts off. And they've continued to fight and play hard.” -- Florida coach Will Muschamp
"I'm extremely proud of our staff and our players for pulling together, for trying to put ourselves in a position to win the game. And we did that on the road against a very good football team."
Florida wrapped up its SEC schedule with a 3-5 record and lost its fifth game in a row, the school's longest losing streak since it went 0-10-1 in 1979. But as the losses have piled up and critics have piled on, several veteran players say they can point to their latest loss as a reason for hope.
"That was a huge point of emphasis coming into this game. We need to be able to get our identity back," said senior center Jonotthan Harrison, who helped lead a resurgent offensive line that paved the way for 200 yards rushing despite missing three offensive tackles. "We need to be able to play physical football like Florida has been known to do. And although we didn't come out with the win, we did prove to ourselves that we're capable of being physical."
As usual, injuries played a significant role in Florida's uphill battle. Before the game, the Gators announced starting quarterback Tyler Murphy would miss the game with a sore AC joint in his throwing shoulder. Backup Skyler Mornhinweg, a redshirt freshman who had never taken a collegiate snap, made his debut and managed an offense that had no choice but to rely heavily on the running game.
"Guys, it's not excuses. It's real," Muschamp said of the Gators' continuing struggle with injuries. "It really is. You can say what you want to say, and you can write whatever the hell you want to write. It's real. It's frustrating. It's frustrating for that locker room. To hell with me, I worry about the kids. You know, these kids have fought their butts off.
"There's a lot of negativity out there, and some of our fans need to get a grip. They really do. They've got a bunch of kids in that locker room fighting their butt off. They can criticize me all they want. I'm great with that. They pay me enough money to deal with that. But those kids don't. They really don't, and they fought their butts off. And they've continued to fight and play hard."
Fight and play hard. The Gators' goals are simple now, and their leaders hope the attitude and effort last Saturday will signal the start of a turnaround.
"I'm proud of all my teammates, man," senior cornerback Jaylen Watkins said. "With all of the adversity we've faced this year, we still went out in Williams-Brice stadium and put ourselves in the game to win. The defense fought, offense fought. … We just told ourselves that we weren't going to come up here and hang our heads. The next two games, we're going to fight."
With the loss dropping Florida's record to 4-6, winning the last two games of the season (home games against Georgia Southern and No. 2 FSU) in order to become bowl eligible appears to be a tall task. But it's a challenge the Gators say they'll accept with renewed vigor.
"We're never going to quit," junior running back Mack Brown said. "We should have won, but we came up short."
1. They have a pulse: Will Muschamp and his coaching staff deserve a lot of credit for circling the wagons. The mid-week votes of confidence from AD Jeremy Foley and school president Bernie Machen certainly helped calm down things. Florida players looked lost and disinterested a week ago in falling at home to Vanderbilt for the first time in 68 years. So credit should be given to Muschamp for rallying his troops. Moral victories don't count in the standings, but with the vitriol surrounding the program a week ago, it was important for Florida to give its fans something to be proud of.
2. The running game made a comeback: The 200 yards rushing was Florida's best performance by its running game since it racked up 246 yards at Kentucky on Sept. 28. When Florida opened the game with 169 yards and a 14-6 lead in the first half, it appeared the Gators might actually score an upset on the road with a one-dimensional offense. While that did not come to pass, UF's ground game did its job and gave the team a couple of chances to score points late in the third quarter and in the fourth.
3. Florida still has a lot of problems: Clearly the Gators have to work on coaching up their quarterbacks. Backup Skyler Mornhinweg made his first career start, took his first collegiate snaps and performed admirably with a game plan that was designed not to expose his weaknesses. But starter Tyler Murphy missed the entire week of practice and has been struggling with a shoulder injury since Oct. 12. There are plenty of problems on the roster that cannot be fixed -- like season-ending injuries or an abysmal kicking game -- but UF must get Mornhinweg up to speed as it tries to get Murphy healthy. Another area of concern is the defense's lack of clutch plays. The turnovers have largely disappeared, and for a defense ranked in the nation's top five, the Gators have given up too many back-breaking second-half plays to win games. Florida had held USC to 93 yards rushing on 27 carries (3.4 yards per carry) before Shon Carson's 58-yard run in the fourth quarter set up the game-winning field goal.
1. Kelvin Taylor, RB: The true freshman was huge in the first half, carrying the ball 13 times for a career-high 86 yards (6.6 yards per carry). He also had first-half touchdown runs of 20 and 29 yards, which were exactly the kind of big plays the Florida offense has desperately needed of late. Taylor finished with 21 rushes for 96 yards, added a 15-yard catch and run on a screen pass, and really hurt the Gamecocks on direct snaps. Like his father, Gator great Fred Taylor, Kelvin combines power and speed with good vision and some wiggle. He's a building block.
2. Offensive line: The Gators O-line was a mess one week ago against Vanderbilt when it gave up five sacks and nine tackles for loss. Faced with a much stiffer test against Jadeveon Clowney, Kelcy Quarles and Co., UF's offensive line was stout. It wasn't asked to do much in pass protection, a season-long weakness, but the run-blocking was better than it had been in weeks. Florida played with the same five starters as last week, and each player showed improvement.
3. The coaching staff: They don't have helmets to stick them on, but UF coaches get some props for the way the Gators gave South Carolina all it could handle. After the game, Steve Spurrier scolded the local media for expecting a blowout win. And when yet another Florida starter -- QB Tyler Murphy -- was declared out before the game, it certainly seemed like a Gamecocks blowout was in the offing. Yes, the offensive game plan was run-heavy and more conservative than usual, but offensive coordinator Brent Pease had no choice but to protect redshirt freshman quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg. Under the circumstances, Pease did an excellent job of employing various run packages, mixing in short, safe passes and generally keeping South Carolina on its heels.
1. Who starts at quarterback? Florida QB Tyler Murphy did not practice all week, Muschamp revealed Thursday night. Murphy is dealing with lingering soreness from an AC joint sprain in his throwing shoulder suffered against LSU on Oct. 12. If he can't play on Saturday, redshirt freshman Skyler Mornhinweg, who has never taken a college snap, will get his first career start. Florida offensive coordinator Brent Pease says he's comfortable with Mornhinweg, pronouncing him "ready to go" earlier in the week. The son of New York Jets offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg also has the confidence of his offensive teammates, although the Florida offense remains mired in a season-long funk. The Gators are last in the SEC in total offense, averaging 335.7 yards a game.
2. SC's defensive front vs. UF's offensive line: With two sacks on the season, Gamecocks junior defensive end Jadeveon Clowney hasn't piled up the same flashy numbers as last year (13 sacks). But Clowney remains a focal point of blocking schemes and offensive game plans. South Carolina DT Kelcy Quarles benefits from all that attention and has produced this season (7 sacks). Florida's O-line has been decimated by injuries but at least has the continuity of the same personnel as last week. The problem, however, is those same players yielded five sacks and nine tackles for loss to Vanderbilt.
3. The revenge factor: Williams-Brice Stadium is a tough-enough place to play at night with a national cable TV audience (ESPN2). On Saturday, the Gamecocks ought to be even more motivated by what happened last year. Florida ambushed South Carolina, winning 44-11 with four turnovers (three fumbles and an interception). The Gators won that game without needing much from their offense, as Florida was held to 183 yards but limited USC to 191 yards. Even without the taste of revenge, this year's game should be important enough to South Carolina, which is still alive in the SEC East race. Win, and it's done all they could to apply pressure to division-leading Missouri. Lose, and there's little hope of going to Atlanta.
4. Run defense vs. Mike Davis: One of the more intriguing subplots of this game will take place when Florida plays defense. Steve Spurrier's offense has become known for much more balance at South Carolina compared to his pass-happy days as Head Ball Coach at Florida. It helps to have the SEC's leading rusher in do-it-all sophomore Mike Davis, who is also the team's second-leading receiver with 29 catches. Davis will square off against a UF run defense that has given up 165.5 yards a game in its last four games. And the Gators can expect to run into an amped-up foe, one who was once committed to the orange and blue for nearly a year, as Davis tweeted last weekend how "hungry" he is to beat UF.
5. Streak-breakers? When Michigan lost at home last week to Nebraska, the Gamecocks immediately became owners of the longest home-winning streak in the nation with 15 in a row. Win today, and SC would also set a new school record for consecutive home wins. There's also a major streak on the line for Florida, as the Gators need two wins in their last three games in order to be bowl eligible and extend the nation's second-longest active bowl streak to 23 years. The history of the Florida-South Carolina series favors UF, which won 18 of 19 games from 1964-2009. But the Gamecocks on Saturday will be looking to further turn the tide with a third win in their last four meetings with Florida.
Tyler Murphy has to stay healthy: With Jeff Driskel going down with a broken leg that will end his 2013 season, the Gators now turn to fourth-year junior Tyler Murphy. He entered the game with no official passes on his résumé and left with fans chanting his name. He passed for 134 yards, rushed for another 84 and had two total touchdowns. But it's very important that Murphy stay upright going forward. If you thought Florida's quarterback depth was bad when Driskel was playing, it's even worse now. Neither Skyler Mornhinweg nor Max Staver have any college experience. Murphy played well, but he has to stay healthy or the Gators' offense could truly be sunk. That means the scrambling quarterback will have to get used to sliding when he takes off.
There's a battle at running back: Matt Jones entered the season as the Gators' starting running back, but coach Will Muschamp said after Saturday's game that he plans to play the hot hand at running back going forward. Right now, junior Mack Brown has the hot hand. He carried the ball a game-high 24 times for 86 yards and had a touchdown. He was more effective in between the tackles and was able to break free from tackles more often than Brown, who rushed for just 49 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries.
Florida's secondary is full of depth: Injuries and an ejection didn't stop the Gators' secondary from having another solid outing. Starting cornerback Marcus Roberson was out with a knee injury, while fellow starter Loucheiz Purifoy left the game early with a leg injury. Brian Poole was ejected in the fourth quarter after being called for targeting. Still, the Gators held Tennessee's two quarterbacks to just 154 yards and a touchdown on 14 of 34 passing. Florida also recorded four interceptions. Coaches were able to move guys all around the secondary, too. Freshman corner Vernon Hargeaves III had another impressive outing, registering three pass breakups. Florida gave up a touchdown pass late on a blown assignment, but the secondary really showed it's quality depth inside the Swamp Saturday.
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger underwent an appendectomy just before the 2006 season began and missed only one game. He had surgery on Sept. 3, four days before the Steelers' season opener on a Thursday night, and played in the second game of the season on Sept. 18. Former Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel played 11 days after having his appendix removed in 2010.
Muschamp said the 6-foot-4, 237-pound Driskel has improved his footwork, comfort in the pocket, and ability to recognize the need to change pass protection schemes. Those were the three areas in which Driskel needed the most improvement after his first season as the Gators' starter. He's been able to get better in those areas because he has essentially gotten twice the practice time and reps because he is no longer splitting reps while competing with Jacoby Brissett for the starting job.
However, missing two weeks will set him and the offense back a bit. The issue will be the chemistry he needs to develop with the receivers, especially four of the five incoming freshmen. Demarcus Robinson enrolled in January and participated in spring practice. The Gators' passing offense ranked 114th nationally last season, and getting better receiver play is the biggest key to the unit's improvement in 2013.
Redshirt junior Tyler Murphy and redshirt freshman Skyler Mornhinweg will likely split the first-team reps. Driskel's surgery highlights just how important it is for him to stay healthy this season. Murphy and Mornhinweg struggled during spring practice and neither is really an adequate option to replace Driskel should he be out for any significant length of time during the season.
The Gators do have four other quarterbacks on the roster: walk-ons Ryan McGriff, Jacob Guy and Chris Wilkes and incoming freshman Max Staver. UF is planning on redshirting Staver. Wilkes is intriguing because he's a 23-year-old former professional baseball player who chose to sign with the San Diego Padres after signing with Ole Miss in 2008. He enrolled in May and has little experience in the offense, but he at least has appeared in pressure-packed environments.
If Driskel is able to return after two weeks, which would roughly be Aug. 14, he would still have 18 days to prepare for Florida's season opener against Toledo on Aug. 31.
No. 17 Skyler Mornhinweg
Redshirt freshman quarterback
Best-case scenario in 2013: Mornhinweg isn’t as mobile as Murphy and doesn’t have a very strong arm, but he is a coach’s son and has a good football IQ. He’s just not as consistent as he needs to be. Solve that and he can overtake Murphy to be Driskel’s top backup.
Worst-case scenario in 2013: Driskel has missed a game in each of his first two seasons because of ankle injuries and his style of play puts him at higher risk of sustaining another injury. A long-term injury to Driskel would be devastating to the offense. Neither Murphy nor Mornhinweg is starter material.
Future impact: Every program has a player like Mornhinweg. He’s never going to see the field – except in a real emergency – but he’s intelligent, stays out of trouble, is good in the locker room and meeting room, and is willing to help younger players.
No. 10 Tyler Murphy
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No. 6 Jeff Driskel
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