Jeff Driskel was effusive.
“You don’t get to the Sugar Bowl by being a bad team,’’ the Florida quarterback was saying.
No one ever said the Gators were a bad team. People have, however, accused them of being an offensively challenged team. Florida was 10th out of 14 Southeastern Conference teams in total offense in 2012, and 14th — dead last — in passing offense.
It was the Gators’ defense that carried them to an 11-1 season, and a Sugar Bowl berth against Louisville on Wednesday at the Superdome.
A lot of factors figure into team statistics, but Driskel is the quarterback (and ranked 10th among the league’s signal-callers), and thus he, and Florida’s anemic passing, has to be part of the reason for the Gators’ herky-jerky ball movement this season.
Driskel completed 140 of 216 attempts for 1,471 yards. He threw just three interceptions. And he ran for 409 yards, making him Florida’s second-leading rusher.
“I’m a bigger guy (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) than most of those guys out there. I can take a hit or two,’’ he chuckled.
Still, Driskel frustrated many of the Gator faithful with uneven offensive production while the defense turned turnovers into a plethora of victories. That perhaps should be enough, but Driskel’s sometimes-shaky decision-making has people pointing at him.
“I know this: I can’t — we can’t — turn the ball over and win,’’ he acknowledged, “against Louisville or anyone else.’’
In Florida’s lone defeat, a 17-9 setback against rival Georgia, the Gators gave the Bulldogs the ball six times.
Driskel was responsible for four of those with two interceptions and with a hand in two lost fumbles.
On the other hand, Driskel did manage the game well enough to navigate the Gators just one victory short of a BCS National Championship berth. No other team in America can make that claim. And he stayed with Johnny Manziel in the SEC opener at Texas A&M. Manziel, the Heisman Trophy winner, was 20 of 30 for 173 yards; Driskel was 13 of 16 for 162 yards.
Little to choose from there.
Coach Will Muschamp said sarcastically, “There is nothing wrong with ending a series with a punt. I know that’s not allowed to be said at Florida.’’
Louisville defensive coordinator Vance Bedford compares Driskel — of whom he has spent hours coming up with a game plan to counteract his skills — with another Gator of recent vintage.
“You could see a version of Tim Tebow in him,’’ Bedford said. “He’s big, He’s strong. He’s fast. He’s athletic. How many quarterbacks across this country can run 4.5 flat? He’s a concern. When he gets back there in the pocket, it breaks down, he’s a guy that can break out of the pocket, find a receiver downfield or take off and run 50, 60 yards.
“It’s going to be hard to tackle him in open space. So, yes, we have a concern about containing Jeff.’’
Bedford may have reason to be worried. In the latter portion of the season, aside from the Georgia debacle, Driskel has become ultra efficient. Against South Carolina, Driskel was 11 of 16 and threw for four touchdowns. After spraining an ankle in the narrow 27-20 victory over Louisiana-Lafayette and missing a game, Driskel came back and played through lingering pain in the season finale against 10th-ranked Florida State. Driskel finished with 15 completions in 23 attempts for 147 yards and a touchdown in the Gators’ 37-26 victory.
Wide receiver Frankie Hammond said Driskel is fast becoming Florida’s offensive ignition.
“There’s a lot of trust in our quarterback right now,’’ he said, “knowing he will get our guys in the right situations. When we are all on the same page, and we all see it through his eyes, then everything starts clicking.’’