Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Gators' Opener, Roper Debut Worth Wait in 65-0 Rout of Eastern Michigan

No one left the game Saturday thinking the Florida Gators were world-beaters, but to a man (and certainly to a fan) it sure felt good finally to play some football again.

Even better, to win again.

Better yet, to win really big.

The much-anticipated debut of UF's new offense was postponed by weather for a week and whatever pent-up frustration the Gators might have dealt with over the previous seven days was taken out on Eastern Michigan to the tune of a 65-0 victory before a delighted crowd, enthused and football-thirsty crowd of 81,049 at The Swamp.

Junior quarterback Jeff Driskel, returning from a season-ending broken leg, set career highs for completions and attempts, going 31 of 45 for 248 yards, a touchdown, no interceptions and engineering an offense that finished with 655 total yards and posted the most points by a UF team since Tim Tebow's 2008 junior season.

"We'll face better than this bunch, [so] we need to be realistic about this," said UF coach Will Muschamp, adding though that he was expecting a big jump with this team from the version that went 4-8 and was devastated by injuries last year. "We needed a win and to get out and play. We're much improved. That's not false bravado. It's real. We're a better football team."

With a bevy of playmakers.

Running backs Kelvin Taylor, Matt Jones and Mack Brown combined for 191 yards rushing and scored three touchdowns. True freshman backup quarterback Treon Harris's first two passes of his college career went 70 and 78 yards for touchdowns to sophomore wide Demarcus Robinson and junior tailback Mark Herndon, respectively. Senior placekicker Frankie Velez, a former walk-on awarded a scholarship two weeks ago, was perfect on three field-goal tries.

Take a bow, Kurt Roper.

UF's new offensive coordinator by way of Duke, Roper commandeered the Gators to scores on their first five possessions en route to a 30-0 halftime lead, then left his foot on the gas in the second half against the overmatched Eagles (1-1).

"I loved it, man," said senior wideout Andre Debose, granted a sixth year of elibility following a season-ending knee injury last summer. "A lot of teams put the pedal to the metal on us in the second half last year, so I'm excited. We put up 65 points. I haven't been part of an offense like that since I've been here."

Even the defense joined in, with safety Duke Dawson picking off a pass and returning it 36 yards for a score in the second half to become the first true freshman in school history to return an interception for a touchdown in his first game.

From there, it turned into stat time for the Gators, who hadn't enjoyed a game like this in a long time. The end result made for the most points by a UF team in 68 games, dating to a 70-19 win over The Citadel in Week 11 of the 2008 season. It was a welcome sight, considering the Gators hadn't won a game since last Oct. 5, a 30-10 victory over Arkansas that gave way to a run of seven straight losses to end the season -- not to mention last week's scheduled opener against Idaho being wiped out due to thunderstorms.

"Hats off to Florida," EMU coach Chris Creighton said. "With the game being canceled last week and this being their opener, they came out with a bang and played great in a great environment."

Velez began the scoring a 33-yard field goal that capped UF's first drive under Roper, a 16-play, 63-yard drive that stalled when a third-and-5 throw by Driskel into the end zone fell incomplete.

Anyone thinking the new offense was more of the same 2013 offense soon found out differently.

"We’re tyring to put last year in the past and focus on this season," Driskel said. "We’re excited about this team and I think we have the players to have a special year."

After the Velez field goal, the next three possessions ended with a 31-yard touchdown run by Taylor (untouched), a 40-yard scoring blast by Jones (untouched) and 12-yarder from true freshman Brandon Powell (barely touched). It was 24-0 barely into the second quarter and the rout was on.

McAlister Driskel's first touchdown pass of the season was a 4-yarder to Jones early in the third period and Taylor's 6-yard dash around right six minutes later pushed UF ahead 44-0 and sent Driskel to the sidelines for the night.

"We have playmakers all over the place," Driskel said.

Enter Harris, the rookie QB from Miami Booker T. Washington.

On the headset, Muschamp had a message for Roper.

"We need to play," he said. "Don't sit on [the ball]."

So he didn't.

Harris' first pass was a bomb that Robinson (6 catches, 123 yards), who caught just five balls in a suspension-marred freshman season, first ran under and then ran through an EMU arm tackle for a 70-yard score. Harris began his second drive by dropping back, setting up in the pocket and heaving a bullet that hit tailback Mark Herndon in the safety seam and in full stride for 78 more yards and a score.

At that point, Harris was 2 of 2 for 148 yards, two TDs -- and a career QB rating of 1,051.6.

And the happy meter inside Florida Field was as statisically whacked out.

"What I really liked about [the game] was that everybody just did their job," junior defensive end Dante Fowler III said. "You can see the chemistry is where it needs to be. We played together as a team, and when you do that you just feel as though you can’t be beat."

It's a great feeling. So was finally playing a game.

And running away with it.

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