MIAMI GARDENS -- Miami quarterback Stephen Morris walked into an interview room about an hour after his Hurricanes had survived a 21-16 win against Florida in the first meeting in five years and perhaps because of scheduling issues the last in a long time, leaned up against a wall and nodded with a smile then took a peek at his cell phone while waiting for his time at the podium.
The screen was filled with messages. And you can bet, a lot of them were worth savoring after such a long wait for The U’s thirst for being called a program back on the rise for the past several years.
“We’ve kind of been thinking about this game for a long time now,’’ said Morris, who finished 12 of 25 for 162 yards and two first quarter touchdowns that put the Hurricanes ahead for good. “Especially after last season, the way that ended (with a self-imposed post-season ban). Going into offseason, going into the spring, obviously we marked this game as a big game for us.’’
Morris was the first QB to throw a pair of TDs against the Gators in the first quarter since former LSU star JaMarcus Russell in 2005.
On down the hallway underneath Sun Life Stadium, the opposing quarterback was surrounded by his own group of media -- and had a lot tougher time answering questions about a game in which the Gators turned the ball over five times, three in the first half, two in the fourth quarter.
“We moved the ball all over the field, and we did some good things at times,’’ Gators coach Will Muschamp said. “But the bottom line is you cannot continue to shoot yourself in the foot and give somebody else an opportunity, especially on the road. And we certainly did that.’’
Driskel had an interception and lost a fumble in Florida’s final two real chances to score and pull the game out. The second mistake led to UM’s final score. The five turnovers were a third of the Gators’ total in the entire 2012 season.
“It was just a bad call on my part,’’ Driskel said of the huge, late interception that broke Florida’s backs of any real comeback hope. “(Trey Burton) was covered, either throw the ball away or try to pick up a first down with your feet so that was just a bad decision on my part.’’
He added, “We couldn’t hold onto the ball. Start with me. I was careless with the ball, a couple of interceptions, I threw the ball in the ground there at the end and a couple of fumbles and they were costly. It’s still early though. We’re going to have to respond from this and not hang our heads. It’s frustrating right now but we’ve still got a lot of football to play this year.’’
True. But this one could send the Gators (1-1) into a tailspin -- the first time UF lost a September game since 2008, a 16-game stretch. Florida has also lost 7 of the last 8 meetings with the Canes and hasn’t won in Miami (now 2-0) since 1985. It was the largest crowd for a Hurricanes home game at Sun Life Stadium, 76,869 and the first win over a top 10 team since 2009 (Gators were No. 12 in AP, No. 9 in USA Today).
Florida was just 2 of 6 in the red zone while totaling 413 yards. Driskel was 22 of 33 for a career-high 291 yards with Solomon Patton catching six balls for 118 yards.
“I think honestly that we should have won this game . . . our defense played great,’’ Patton said. “They definitely played championship defense.’’
But Florida’s offense, which turned the ball over just 15 times a year ago (10 fumbles, 5 interceptions) gave it away three times in the first half alone to put even more pressure on its defense. With too many chances blowing up in their faces, the Gators defense still held Miami to just 67 yards in the second half and four first downs.
“I’ve been saying it since spring,’’ Hurricanes third-year coach Al Golden said. “I think we’ve grown up. We played so many young guys a year ago at places you can’t play young guys. We’re so much stronger, bigger up front. Our linebackers are 20 pounds heavier. The secondary doesn’t miss rotations any more like last year, so there are no blown gaps
“Florida is good. Their running backs are good. Their line is good.’’
But not good enough to overcome an offensive meltdown.
A fumble by Matt Jones, who missed the opener while recovering from a viral infection, gave Miami the ball at midfield in the first quarter. It was the first of a long line of mistakes.
Morris hit Herb Waters for the game’s opening score at 7:24. UF answered with a quick TD on a Driskel run after Locheiz Purifoy blocked the ‘Canes’ punt. It was the 13th kick blocked by the Gators in Will Muschamp’s three seasons.
But UF botched a fake extra-point attempt to remain behind, 7-6. Miami responded with a 6-play, 84-yard drive to go up
14-6 on Morris’s second score -- this one 52 yards to Phillip Dorsett, who badly beat Gators safety Marcus Maye.
The only time Florida gave up 14 points in the first quarter a year ago was in the 33-23 loss to Louisville in the Sugar Bowl.
The Gators lost early certain points on Driskel’s first interception on third-and-goal from the UM 11. Driskel was stopped for no gain on fourth-and-1 from the Hurricanes’ 16 on their next drive. Florida gave away more points when Trey Burton fumbled the ball away at the Miami 13 in the final seconds of the first half.
“In hindsight, running away from where you are, you see an opening but at this level those openings are going to close up fast,’’ Driskel said of his first interception. “It was a dumb play. You can’t throw back across your body running the other way. The windows are tighter. It was just a bad play. . . . When I saw the ball in the air and the guy cutting it, I knew it wasn’t pretty.’’
Coming into the contest, UF had lost 7 of the last 8 times it had multiple turnovers in its opponent’s territory. So it’s not like that was ever a winning formula in the past.
It was a game that, with three potential field goals, the Gators should have led instead trailed and gave all momentum to the host Hurricanes heading into the second half.
Austin Hardin’s 33-yard field goal got Florida to within 14-9 with 8:40 left in the third quarter.
At the same time, UF’s defense also rose to the challenge. After allowing 143 yards in the first quarter the Gators gave up just two yards in the second 15 minutes and held Miami to just two first downs in the second and third quarters combined.
But Florida had two crucial drives killed by holding penalties and a pair of Driskel incompletions on third down in great field position to give the ball back. Then came Driskel’s second interception when it looked like the Gators would finally go ahead midway through the fourth quarter.
After Duke Johnson’s late score, Driskel hit Patton (6 catches, 118 yards) on a 21-yard touchdown pass to make it
21-16 with 2:08 to play in the contest.
Florida had one final shot at pulling off a miracle finish, holding UM to force a punt with 37 seconds to go. Driskel was almost sacked and threw the ball away on first down and the game ended with a 10-second run off after a Gators’ penalty.
UF looked shaky from the start and never really got the running game --led by Jones’s 47 yards on 18 attempts _ to its usual level.
“Momentum is a big thing, especially in college football,’’ UF center Jon Harrison said. “The fact we didn’t establish that momentum coming out in the first half, it did make our job a little more difficult. It did hinder our success a little bit but there was nothing you could do about it, just go on to the next play. . . . Whatever it is, I can’t give it to Miami. It’s on us. It’s definitely on us.’’
Morris, on the other hand, spread the compliments.
“It’s a team effort. The defensive kept giving us energy and giving us the ball back. Special teams were making big plays for us,’’ he said. “It was only a matter of time. Florida’s defense obviously is a great defense. They were making unbelievable calls and they were getting to the ball. But we just did the little things right to keep us moving, a couple of first downs here and there. When they had the ball, the defense was able to force them to turn it over a couple of times and we were able to punch it in.’’