Tyler Murphy anxiously awaited the game that would mark his first start career-start this past Saturday against Kentucky, but the wait was worth ever second for Florida fans.
For many Gator fans, the season leading up to the moment when they would see Tyler Murphy step onto the field, seemed as if history could be repeating itself all over again. It was exactly 10 years ago to the day, when former Gators quarterback Chris Leak — then an anxious freshman, himself — made his first career start in Commonwealth Stadium and delivered a fourth-quarter performance worthy of the adjective, inspiring.
Florida (2-1, 1-0 SEC) rallied from a 21-3 deficit to win 24-21 — which remains its largest deficit comeback in school history.
“I’ll have butterflies,” Murphy said. “I’ll be anxious, but you know, I’ll get out there and maybe complete my first pass. Once I get hit, I think I’ll be fine. I don’t think it will be as bad as it was this [past] week.”
Murphy admitted that he was nervous when he was thrust into action after starting quarterback Jeff Driskel went down with a broken leg against Tennessee.
But he didn’t show it and rose to the occasion to save the game. Watching Murphy on the field, any nervous misgivings, doubts or pressures Murphy felt were also impossible to detect during the Gators’ 24-7 win at Kentucky this Saturday night. And he did have reason to be anxious, and for reasons other than letting down the high hopes of thousands of Gator fans watching on.
Unlike his debut performance, in which he led the Gators to a 31 – 17 victory continuing a school-record of 26 consecutive games against the Wildcats — the longest active annual streak in the nation — the Bluegrass faithful had been reenergized by first-year UK coach Mark Stoops. However, it quickly became apparent that Kentucky was not reenergized enough for Tyler Murphy and the Florida Gators.
Murphy led a 13-play, 93-yard touchdown drive to open the game, then threw a 9-yard touchdown to Trey Burton. Tyler Murphy also ran for a 5-yard score and was 11 out of 11 passing, as Florida (3-1, 2-0 SEC) posted a 21-7 halftime lead. Not a half-bad start for a guy who had not thrown his first college football pass until just seven days earlier, when he had to replace an injured Jeff Driskel.
“I don’t think he’ll ever be in a tougher situation than he was last [week,] coming cold off the bench,” senior receiver Trey Burton said. “You just see him grow up right in front of your eyes. I’m just really proud of him and really excited for the future.”
Murphy’s start sparked memories of Tim Tebow, who opened the 2010 Sugar Bowl hitting his first 12 throws, that is, until he bested the Tebow streak by completing his first 13 passes. Murphy’s 14 pass was my personal favorite of the game, even though that may sound a bit strange.
Facing 3rd-and-2 from the Kentucky 23rd-yard line, Murphy turned his attention to running back Matt Jones. Wildcats linebacker, Josh Forrest, easily stepped in front of the throw for the interception. For the first time this season and, indeed, the game, Tyler Murphy let on his inexperience. But it was what Murphy did next that counts. He would make his first career tackle – on the Gators’ 39 – to prevent what would have been a certain touchdown. He hunkered down when it mattered, refused to let it shake him up, and he drove on determined to rectify a somewhat expected, inexperienced mistake. And that matters.
Murphy would regain his comfort just five plays later, when first-year freshman cornerback, Vernon Hargreaves III, intercepted Kentucky quarterback Maxwell Smith in the end-zone to salvage Florida’s 14-point cushion.
Jones, who had struggled in his first two games to come back from an offseason illness, became a bedrock for the team and Murphy to build their strategy on. Gators coach Will Muschamp said, “I pulled Matt in Monday and said you need to cut it loose and play. You’re very tentative when you’re running.”
Coach Muschamp’s observation was on the mark, with Jones performing just as Mushcamp envisioned, finishing with 176 yards on 28 carries. Jones’ 2-yard touchdown run put Florida up with a 7-0 lead and capped the Gators’ longest drive of the season.
The drive, which lasted just under eight minutes, put at ease those who had fears that Florida was weakened without Driskel, as well as star defense tackle Dominique Easley. To put it into perspective, the Florida Gators were just 13-point favorites heading into Saturday’s game – which was the closest line since 2007 – against a team Florida had beaten by an average of 40.4 points in the past five meetings.
“I was very concerned going into the game,” Muschamp admitted. He shouldn’t feel bad, because he wasn’t the only one. But Tyler Murphy’s first career-starter began strong, was filled with firsts, ended in sweet victory, and left fans with the wonder that they just may have witnessed the beginning of another chapter in Gator history that, one day, will be a source of past pride.