Florida vs. Kentucky, Rapid Recap: New Gators, same old dominance

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Florida thumped Kentucky without some of its best players on Saturday, and did so in the same dominant fashion Will Muschamp would prefer for every game.

Florida beat Kentucky, 24-7, on Saturday. You can relive the game through our Game Thread. The Rapid Recap is our comprehensive first look before a second full viewing of each Gators game. It will usually run within 24 hours of the game's end.

Florida started a new quarterback in place of its previously unquestioned and currently injured starter, and a new defensive tackle in place of the emotional core of its defense, and yet these were Will Muschamp's Florida Gators through and through in Lexington on Saturday night. With efficient offense and smothering defense, Florida earned its 27th consecutive win over Kentucky, and gave yet more evidence that Tyler Murphy may steer the ship as well — or better — than Jeff Driskel did.

How Florida Won

A dominant first half and a stress-free response

Florida's offense cruised to a touchdown on the opening drive against Kentucky, but the Wildcats responded with a good first drive of their own, marching into field goal range. And then Joe Mansour did that thing that kickers do with frustrating frequency against Florida, and made magic on a fake field goal.

Florida could've slipped, could've stumbled, could've found itself in a street fight with the Kentucky team that was keyed up for this game like few others in the history of that decades-long losing streak. And when Florida drove down, but was stopped, and settled for a field goal that Austin Hardin left well right, it felt like that might happen. Instead, Florida's defense stiffened, and Murphy calmly led Florida down the field for two more touchdown drives in the first half, with a 67-yard Matt Jones run shortening the first of them to a three-play jaunt. It was 21-7 at halftime, and it was over: Kentucky threatened to score just once in the second half, and Florida did a great job of neutralizing that threat, too.

Outstanding

Matt Jones was finally who we thought he would be

There were a lot of good things said about Matt Jones in the run-up to this season. Fans thought he would follow up Mike Gillislee with a second consecutive 1,000-yard season from a Florida running back. Reporters, myself included, thought he was poised to build on a fine finish to the 2012 season. Coaches dropped hints that he was the best player on Florida's offense.

But through two games, that Matt Jones wasn't the Matt Jones that played for Florida. Jones missed the Toledo game, still recovering from a viral infection that left him hospitalized in late July, and looked like a shadow of the player he was last year against Miami and Tennessee, with little burst and diminished strength, while fumbling in each game.

The Matt Jones who played for Florida last night was the guy we heard about in the offseason. Jones's signature play was the 67-yard gallop down the sideline to set up Florida's second touchdown, one on which he made it to the corner, accelerated down the sideline, and cut back such that he might have scored had Quinton Dunbar not tripped him up while trying to run interference.

On the other 27 carries of his night, he still managed 109 yards.

Put it together, and Jones had 176 yards on 28 carries, more yards than any Florida running back since Bobby Forbes dropped 177 on the Jacksonville Naval Air Station in 1944 Ciatrick Fason had 210 against Kentucky in 2004. (Jeff Driskel had 177 rushing yards against Vanderbilt last season.) He got them with his speed and burst still off from what they probably are at his best, too: This was a job done by running efficiently on nearly every carry, losing yards just twice, and pushing piles for an extra yard or two on at least a dozen runs.

For a night, Matt Jones was Florida's best offensive player again. Let's hope he continues to get stronger, and gets his due.

Tyler Murphy started brilliantly, and finished with a win

Tyler Murphy's first half: 11 completions on 11 attempts for 120 yards and a touchdown; four rushes for 20 yards and a touchdown. It was brilliant, much like Driskel's first half against Toledo, and it satisfied nearly every person still cynically trying to hold on to the idea that a small sample size against bad teams merely suggests and does not confirm that Murphy is a very good quarterback.

I say nearly every person because I'm still weighing "It's just Tennessee/Kentucky" against the cool, expert handling of Florida's offense I've seen for the last seven quarters, but even I can certainly admit that Murphy's taken a lot of the risk out of the Florida offense. Gone were the fumbles that plagued Florida against Tennessee; in their place, Murphy threw a pick on a ball that Muschamp said wasn't his fault after the game, and raced to make a touchdown-saving tackle on the play. (It turned out to be a point-saving tackle, too.) Gone were the occasionally frantic breakdowns Driskel made regular fare while trying to wait for receivers to get open or find running lanes; Murphy replaced them with more deliberate scrambles with the intent to throw, or immediate decisions to get upfield.

I think that's what most Gators feel is the primary difference between Murphy and Driskel: Murphy seems more decisive. And those intangibles of certitude and control that we think we can see in Murphy make a lot of us feel a lot better with him under center. Florida's also been better at keeping pressure off Murphy (both in the pocket and in the sense of giving him mostly low-stress game situations) so far, and the defenses Murphy's seen have definitely been conducive to letting him make decisions in his own rhythm, and he got a better version of Matt Jones than Driskel had this year, and Murphy went 4-for-7 for 34 yards and a pick in the second half last night, but he's 1-0 as a starter and 2-0 as Florida's primary quarterback, and those are the numbers that matter most to Muschamp and Brent Pease.

Vernon M.F. Hargreaves III, again

This is pure, uncut Florida fan hyperbole: Is Vernon Hargreaves III the best cornerback in America?

Check out a draft board for 2014, and you find a few names at the top of the a list of what should be the best and most experienced college cornerbacks: Ohio State's Bradley Roby, TCU's Jason Verrett, Oregon's Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Florida's own Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson. Roby got torched on Saturday night for more than 200 yards from Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis. Verrett's been hurt seemingly all year; Roberson's now missed two games. Ekpre-Olomu doesn't have an interception yet, and he hasn't even been credited with a pass broken up this year. Purifoy's been, kindly, a disappointment.

Hargreaves, through four games, has three interceptions — one coming last night on a leaping play in the end zone — and four pass breakups on seven passes defended. He's been truly "beaten" once, on a fourth and 10 last night that featured him slipping, presumably to prove that he is human. He is more impressive in person than on television, because you get a better sense for how tightly he winds himself around his receiver, sometimes seemingly daring a quarterback to throw his way by lagging off only to get into perfect position to break up the pass by the time the ball gets there.

I still think Hargreaves is likely to go down as Florida's best freshman cornerback, and maybe Florida's best freshman defender, but those distinctions almost seems like small potatoes at this point. VH3 stepped in for the injured Roberson and may have made Florida's secondary better; his play puts the immensely talented Purifoy's deficiencies as a cover corner in sharp relief. If he's better than Purifoy and in Roberson's league, then he's essentially jumped two whole classes of tremendous secondary players without anyone at all arguing that he's all hype.

And he's doing this all less than three months into his collegiate career.

Savor every second of Vernon M.F. Hargreaves III. The 2016 NFL Draft is sooner than you think, and I'm going to run out of ways to say that he's a three-year player before his first year is even half over.

Florida's defense and offense work like twin boa constrictors

Florida's offense ran 63 plays last night, by far its season low. (Florida ran 70 plays against Toledo.) But 22 of those plays got first downs; eight of them moved the chains on 13 third downs; three of them produced touchdowns; just three of them stopped the clock. Florida's first drive in the second half ran 7:20 off the clock despite covering just 46 yards and ending in an interception before the Gators even got into the red zone. This offense chews through seconds like beavers do logs.

And the defense is more than happy to give the ball to the offense and let them do just that. Florida's defense has allowed eight third-down conversions of 45 attempts in four games, and leads the country in third down conversion percentage and conversions allowed; no other team has allowed fewer than 11 third-down conversions, and some of those teams have only played three games.

One reason the defense may be able to do that? It's faced less work than any other defense in the country, having been on the field for just 211 plays through four games. Only Navy's defense has seen fewer snaps, and the Midshipmen have played just three games. Florida's faced 45 third down attempts, tied for fifth-fewest in the country. It's allowed just six red zone attempts — two, it should be noted, thanks to offensive turnovers — tied for tops in the nation, and has allowed three red zone touchdowns, tied for third nationally.

Florida's defense gets the ball back to Florida's offense with regularity. That Gators offense gets to lean on the other defense and create long drives that keep the Gators defense fresh. That fresh defense gets the ball back again, and the cycle continues. It's a genius plan, even if it's contrary to everything Gators fans have been programmed to want by the last two decades of high-flying, high-scoring football.

Encouraging

Florida's receivers are solid

Florida didn't need to throw to beat Kentucky, not really; teams don't throw just 18 passes if they need to throw. But Trey Burton had six catches for 66 yards and a touchdown, finishing up a three-game, four-year torment of Kentucky (he missed last year's game), Quinton Dunbar had a 29-yard catch and a 19-yard catch-and-run, and Demarcus Robinson made his first catch as a Gator on a crucial third down, showing a little bit of why coaches want him involved in this offense.

About the only bad thing about this Florida receiving corps on this night was Solomon Patton's quiet (three catches, 12 yards) performance, which happened as a result of Florida keeping almost everything underneath. Oh, well.

The defense missed few beats without Easley

The most important ramification of Dominique Easley's absence was the lack of push up front, which everyone in Gator Nation expected to disappear or be diminished without Easley's quick-twitch brilliance. Beyond that, it's hard to say Florida's defense missed much without him.

Kentucky ran for 48 yards on 21 carries, and for 23 yards on 20 carries that didn't belong to Joe Mansour. Subtract the four sacks that count against Kentucky's rushing yardage, and the Wildcats still managed just 45 yards on 16 rushes. None of those numbers are good.

And if Kentucky was bad at running the ball, it was only marginally better at throwing it. Florida yielded 125 yards on 26 attempts, for a 4.8 yards per attempt mark that is right on line with its season average, and gave up one pass play of more than 13 yards. Hargreaves snagged his pick, Maxwell Smith was sacked four times, and Jabari Gorman delivered one heck of a (clean!) hit on a pass in the red zone.

It was Kentucky, sure. But this Kentucky team came in with three games of more than 5.5 yards per play under its belt this year, and with gaudy statistical rankings on offense. Florida's going to tarnish more than a few of those gleaming offenses this year, I think.

Trey Burton is Kentucky's kryptonite

No football player will ever have a more effective game against Kentucky than Trey Burton did in his six-touchdown showcase in 2010, in all probability, but Burton managed to follow it up with two more effective performances in 2011 and 2013. He'll finish his Florida career with eight touchdowns against Kentucky, and 238 yards on 27 career touches against the Wildcats.

Kryptonite might be strong, because air has occasionally been Kentucky's football team's Kryptonite, but Burton's been Superman against the 'Cats, and no SEC team will miss him less.

Brent Pease has the steadiest hand

Possibly controversial opinion: Brent Pease has more to do with Tyler Murphy's success in these last two games than anyone who isn't Murphy, and it's because he's done everything in his power to keep things simple for his quarterback.

Florida opened up with a lot of shotgun on Saturday, running eight of the 13 plays on its first drive with Murphy standing up. This helped Murphy find receivers on his four passes on that drive, and helped him figure out where the lane was on his 13-yard carry. Florida ran the ball up the middle repeatedly for good yardage all night, consistently getting short yardages for third down that gave Pease plenty of options. Pease used Demarcus Robinson perfectly, used Trey Burton very well, and, finally, gave up on wasting downs by deploying Florida's tight ends as pass-catchers.

Pease's play-calling was excellent in the first half, and got Florida four chances at points and three touchdowns. It was far more vanilla in the second half, as Florida was clearly trying only to run out the clock, but it accomplished that goal just as well.

I wrote this last week:

You can whine about Pease's playcalling getting too cute and too conservative from time to time, but Florida's offensive miscues were, for the second straight week, more about execution than design. None of the three Florida turnovers — Florida has now committed nine on the year — was even remotely because of a bad decision by Pease, and Pease smartly kept things basic in the red zone.

Pease was never too cute against Kentucky, and never too conservative; his players committed just one turnover that was very much not his fault. He's a damn good offensive coordinator, though he's still working with scraps.

And if he's underappreciated or unappreciated, that's really on you, not him.

Minimal penalty pain, again

Florida committed five penalties, costing itself 28 yards. One of those penalties was a holding call on the opening kickoff that wiped out a good return ... and allowed Florida to run more time off the clock. Another one was a delay of game on Florida's final drive.

So there were really just three penalties of consequence for Florida in this game, and though two of the three gave Kentucky first downs and the third cost Florida one, this is far, far better than it has been in recent memory.

Both Good and Bad

The Murphy vs. Driskel battle will rage on

I'm gonna have fun with our collective overreaction to Tyler Murphy being competent because it's easier and more fun than trying to argue or make substantive points about Murphy and Driskel on their merits. Murphy's piloted a more efficient Florida offense in the last two games, to be sure; Driskel may have played the hardest two games of Florida's schedule so far. Murphy has played well within himself and made few mistakes; Driskel was put into positions that encouraged him to take risks that sometimes led to mistakes. We can't know if Murphy would have helped Florida beat Miami, or if Driskel would have been just fine without an injury against Tennessee and Kentucky, and the points we make here rely on conjecture and projection more than anything solid.

But while this debate is going to be exhausting for the average Florida fan, and something beyond that for a Florida fan who routinely interacts with dozens of Florida fans on the Internet and in person over the course of a given week, it is a debate we're having because Tyler Murphy has played well enough to make it one. If Murphy had failed to play well against Tennessee and/or Kentucky, we wouldn't have this debate: We'd have a meltdown about Florida being 2-2 or 1-3, and calls for Skyler Mornhinweg to play.

This, frustrating as it is, is not nearly a worst-case scenario.

Kentucky is not very good

I genuinely think Florida was tested more by Toledo than by Tennessee and Kentucky. Toledo had a competent offense, and a decent defensive gameplan; Tennessee's offense spent two quarters drooling on itself, and handing Florida prime opportunities for points, while Kentucky's defense never really stressed Florida just two weeks after doing a heck of a job against Teddy Bridgewater and the potent Louisville offense.

A win is a win, as I have come to appreciate more and more under Will Muschamp, but a win over a bad team makes me leery of taking too much of what I saw as the true performance level of the winning team. And while I'd rather Florida play 12 not very good teams than not, I think every team remaining on Florida's schedule is likely to provide more resistance than Kentucky did.

Needs Improvement

Loucheiz Purifoy

I called Loucheiz Purifoy "a disappointment" above, because that's the kindest way of referring to his play so far. But below average is the best way of referring to it.

Purifoy is a year removed from being a game-changing playmaker on special teams and, occasionally, on defense. That reputation, though, was built on maybe five plays in three games: Purifoy stripped Connor Shaw on the first play against South Carolina, and figured in many of the turnovers on that game; he nailed Odell Beckham against LSU, then got nailed by Matt Elam; he forced a fumble against Florida State that the Seminoles recovered.

Perhaps more importantly, in retrospect, Purifoy was picked on as the weak link in Florida's secondary by Georgia and Louisville, and his opportunistic tackling was revealed as gambling on that fateful late touchdown drive by the Dawgs. Those issues resurfaced against Miami this year, as Purifoy yielded a big play with a missed tackle late, and his inability to cover without copious use of his hands made him look pretty silly on replays last night.

I don't think Purifoy's bad, in any sense, and he's definitely still got the skills and swagger necessary to play defensive back. But he is lacking in consistent effort on the field, and I would rate him as no better than Florida's third-best corner right now. If he wants to be an NFL player next year, as well he might after an offseason spent being hyped, he needs to improve.

Austin Hardin's accuracy

I think Hardin has the leg to make kicks out to about 50 yards, and he certainly nearly had the strength to get his 53-yarder against Kentucky over the bar. But it wasn't even close to being between the posts, and I'm not going to feel comfortable about Hardin from either one of the hashes until he actually makes a field goal that isn't straight on.

A reminder, though: Caleb Sturgis missed eight of his 30 field goals in his first full season as Florida's kicker, and only really became automatic with time. Plenty of that still remains for Hardin.

Embarrassing

WE GOT FOOLED AGAIN

GO AHEAD AND WATCH LSU'S FAKE FIELD GOAL AGAINST FLORIDA FROM 2010 AGAIN AND TELL ME IF IT'S NOT THE SAME EXACT PLAY THAT ISN'T EVEN COVERED AS WELL THIS TIME.

I MEAN WE WON AND SO EVERYONE CAN LAUGH ABOUT IT NOW AND KENTUCKY WASTED ITS BEST SPECIAL TEAMS PLAY AGAINST THE TEAM IT NEVER EVER BEATS ANYWAY, BUT WE REALLY GOT FOOLED BY THE SAME EXACT FAKE FIELD GOAL TWICE IN FOUR YEARS WITH TWO ENTIRELY DIFFERENT TEAMS. YEESH.

Quinton Dunbar did too much, and we laughed at it

From this angle and the angle from Kentucky's end zone, it was pretty clear to me that Quinton Dunbar's sin here was trying too hard to get in front of Matt Jones and lay a block on the defender closest to him. He didn't tackle, or even "tackle" Jones; he tripped him, at best, and cost him a few yards that he would have gained had he just been left to be caught by Kentucky's defenders on his own.

But the reaction is "LOL, YOU GUYS, FLORIDA CAN'T STOP TACKLING ITS OWN PLAYERS," not "Quinton Dunbar ran 60 yards and caught up with Matt Jones down the field to try to throw a block, and is a badass," and that's embarrasing for us, not him. (I did think the jokes in this vein were quite good.)

Stray Observations

  • Kentucky actually ran the ball pretty well when it got players into space. Kentucky did not go to this strategy over and over, because it is Kentucky, and cannot have nice football things.
  • Florida's propensity for long, successful drives is new and fun.
  • If Matt Stinchcomb never does another Florida game, it will still be too soon.
  • With the five-year anniversary of Tim Tebow's "Promise" speech now past, it would be nice to have a few broadcasts go by without mentioning him.
  • Dante Fowler, Jr. was on Maxwell Smith about as quickly as I've ever seen a defensive end get to a quarterback on his two late sacks, but he was aided by Kentucky's left tackle not even trying to block him on those plays.

That's what I saw. What'd you see? I'll be in the comments all day.

Star-divide

Andy Hutchins is Alligator Army's managing editor. Follow Alligator Army on Twitter and Facebook.

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