NASHVILLE – The No. 4 Florida Gators’ visit to Vanderbilt was supposed to be a formality, a warm-up act to the most-anticipated matchup yet with the Ol’ Ball Coach in the Swamp.
Instead, the Gators, coming off an emotional win against LSU, looked to be on their way to a letdown before next weekend’s visit from coach Steve Spurrier and South Carolina.
But behind a record-setting night by sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel and some bold special teams play, the Gators escaped with a 31-17 win on Saturday night in Nashville.
Florida’s 22nd straight win against Vanderbilt was somewhat in doubt – the Gators led by a touchdown - until Driskel ripped off an 70-yard touchdown with 2:20 remaining to ice the game.
On the touchdown run, Driskel’s third of the night, he blew by two Commodores’ defensive backs and also passed Gators legend Tim Tebow. Driskel finished the game with 177 yards on 11 carrries to break Tebow’s single-game rushing record by a quarterback, 166 yards in 2007 against Ole Miss.
“DBs definitely don’t expect me to run by them, so keep that a little secret,” Driskel said.
The former Hagerty High School standout will not sneak up on anyone anymore.
Last weekend against LSU, Driskel had seemed to regress a bit. Facing the Tigers’ vaunted defense, he had just 62 yards of total offense and suffered five sacks as senior Mike Gillislee carried the offense.
But with the Commodores keying Gillislee, Driskel, once again, looked like one of the breakout players in the SEC.
“It’s amazing,” senior safety Josh Evans said of Driskel’s performance. “He really showed his will tonight.”
Against Vanderbilt, the Gators once again showed the determination, depth and daring to pick up their third SEC road win in 2012.
Florida (6-0, 5-0 SEC) continues sits atop the SEC East standings and should enter the thick of the national championship convesation when the BCS standings are released on Sunday.
Still, the Gators needed some big plays just to slip by one of the SEC’s lower-rung teams.
“I’m pleased with the win, but cautiously optimistic with the way we played,” coach Will Muschamp said.
While Driskel led the way, he got a lot of help from the team’s special teams unit.
No play against Vanderbilt might have been bigger for the Gators than a 54-yard run on a fake punt by junior wide receiver Solomon Patton that set up a 13-yard touchdown run by Driskel in the third quarter that gave Florida an 18-7 lead.
“I felt like we needed a little change of momentum,” Muschamp said.
It was the second big play by the team’s special teams unit in a matter of minutes.
With Florida leading 11-7, Vanderbilt had a chance to pull within one point, but Florida defensive end Earl Okine blocked a 44-yard field goal attempt by the Commodores’ Carey Spear to end a 16-play drive without any points.
Once again, Driskel and Gators had to overcome another slow start.
Vanderbilt took a 7-0 lead in the first quarter against the Gators, who have not been outscored 27-17 in the first quarter this season.
But Florida bounced back quickly in the second quarter behind its quarterback, who capped a season-long 91-yard touchdown drive with a 37-yard touchdown around left end on which he deftly faked a handoff to Gillislee to freeze Vanderbilt’s defenders.
Rather than settle for a tie game, the Gators lined up in the swinging gate on the extra-point attempt, where junior Trey Burton took a direct snap and scored two points.
“We never hang our heads, we make adjustments and keep pushing forward,” Driskel said. “We know we’re going to make plays.”
From there, Driskel kept the pressure on the Commodores, even while playing behind an offensive line beset by injuries.
“We’re a little bit like a M.A.S.H. unit,” Muschamp said.
Left guard James Wilson (eye) did not make the trip after he suffered an undisclosed injury at Wednesday’s practice. Center Jon Harrison injured his right arm on Florida’s first series, and left tackle Xavier Nixon left the game in the second quarter with an upper-body injury, leaving the Gators with just two starting linemen.
And one of them, right tackle Chaz Green, was back in the lineup for the first time he injured his ankle against on Sept. 8 against Texas A&M.
“I’m very pleased with where we are,” Muschamp said. “Are we satisfied? Absolutely not.”