No one was happier at Kyle Field on Saturday than QB Jeff Driskel when a bootleg was called with 1:30 remaining in the fourth quarter against Texas A&M.
With the Gators clinging to a 20-17 lead inside one of college football’s toughest venues and facing second-and-10 at their own 45-yard line, offensive coordinator Brent Pease reached into his playbook and put the entire game on Driskel’s shoulders in his first career start.
Driskel loved it. For someone who looked lost as a rookie in 2011, Driskel wanted the chance to win the game and looked very confident when he faked the power play up the middle, rolled to his right, evaded an Aggies defender and darted past the first-down marker for a 21-yard gain that sealed the game for Florida.
“It was a big call,” Driskel said. “We knew that they were going to load the box because it’s definitely a time in the game where you try to run the ball and kill the clock.
“We knew if I could make a guy miss, we could pick up some good yardage. That’s what happened.”
Driskel had the confidence to know that the play would work and that he was the one who was going to execute it to perfection.
And since Tim Tebow left, that’s something the Gators have lacked at the most important position on the field. Driskel isn’t Tebow, but his field persona and his grit are exactly what Florida’s offense needs. He scrambled to make key first downs and stood as tall as ever when he delivered a 39-yard strike to Omarius Hines that set up Florida’s go-ahead touchdown.
For two years, Florida has watched its quarterback position sputter. From John Brantley awkwardly running a spread offense, to Driskel and Jacoby Brissett getting rude welcomes to the SEC when Brantley went down with an ankle injury last year, throwing the ball has been painful for the Gators.
Driskel, who completed 13 of 16 passes for 162 yards in Saturday’s game, was far from perfect or pretty. But he was tough and he led.
The Aggies led 17-10 at halftime, and that seven-point deficit might have been insurmountable for Florida in 2010 and 2011. But with all the momentum in Texas A&M’s hands, Driskel stayed composed, and so did his team.
“It’s definitely a confidence-builder anytime you can go into a hostile environment like that and get an SEC win on the road,” Driskel said. “That’s a big deal.”
And it’s only going to help Driskel grow. Step 1 was surviving A&M’s hostile environment. Step 2 is learning how to make better decisions when things break down. Too many times Driskel tried to be the hero when he didn’t need to be. On one hand, you have to like the guts he showed, but those guts quickly turned to headaches as he was sacked eight times. Most of the time it was because he held on to the ball too long or carelessly ran out of bounds to avoid hits.
None resulted in turnovers, but all resulted in negative yards.
“He does need to get rid of the football in some situations,” coach Will Muschamp said. “We had some guys open we could've hit down the field for some big plays, but again, the game will continue to slow down for him the more reps he gets, the more experience he gets, and that's what I felt like, for both guys, Jacoby and Jeff, as we work through this season.”
And something else that will help is that Driskel is perfectly content with handing the ball off to Mike Gillislee, who has been the focal point of the offense thus far.
“We can get 4 or 5 [yards] on any given down, or we can hit a big play,” Driskel said of Gillislee.
“A quarterback's best friend is a good running game.”
Still, Driskel proved Saturday that his hesitation is dissolving. The playbook should open up more, and Driskel welcomes more opportunities to throw downfield as he continues to adjust to Pease’s offense.
His next test is a major one: on the road against No. 23 Tennessee.
Driskel isn’t intimidated heading to Neyland Stadium. He relishes the opportunity to play in yet another tough venue and possibly disappoint yet another opposing fan base.
“That’s why you come to a school like Florida, to play in these big games and be there with 'College GameDay,'” he said. “We’re excited and can’t wait to get to Knoxville.”