Florida coach Will Muschamp knew he had a quiet leader in Tyler Murphy long before most other people did. When Gators starting quarterback Jeff Driskel was forced to miss nearly two weeks of fall camp with an emergency appendectomy, Murphy, a redshirt junior, handled the majority of first-team reps. This was a mere formality, of course; Driskel would eventually return in time for Florida’s opener against Toledo on Aug. 31. Still, Muschamp was encouraged by the poise he saw from Murphy.
“Tyler took major strides when Jeff was out with his appendix in camp,” Muschamp said on the SEC’s weekly teleconference. “That's where I saw that Tyler had a great command of our offense.”
What Muschamp didn’t know was that Driskel’s campaign would be cut short only three weeks into the season. The senior broke his fibula on the first series of Florida’s game against Tennessee on Sept. 21, and Murphy stepped in to take his place. Three games later, Murphy and the No. 17 Gators will face their biggest test to date when they travel to Baton Rouge to battle No. 10 LSU.
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Murphy had yet to throw a college pass when he took over against the Vols, but he amassed 134 passing yards, 84 rushing yards and two total touchdowns to help Florida pull away for a 31-17 victory. During the next two weeks, the Gators topped Kentucky and Arkansas by an average of 18.5 points, and Murphy completed 78 percent of his attempts with five total touchdowns.
Florida’s offense is finding its footing, but perhaps most importantly, the Gators are limiting turnovers with Murphy at the helm. The Gators turned the ball over three times in a Week 2 loss to Miami, including two costly Driskel interceptions. But against the Vols, Wildcats and Razorbacks, Murphy threw only one pick. He currently boasts a 181.5 passer rating.
“I think we’ve taking care of the football better [with Murphy],” Muschamp said. “Tyler's been a guy that’s been able to create some off rhythm plays for us. We've improved ourselves as a scrambling team. We improved ourselves in throwing the football to start the year, and we've continued to improve through the year.”
However, Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee have a combined record of 7-10. The Gators’ trip to 5-1 LSU will be Murphy’s first chance to prove himself against top-flight SEC competition. The Tigers have already notched wins over TCU, Auburn and Mississippi State, and they put up 41 points in a tight loss to Georgia. LSU has won 28 of its last 29 games at home.
The Tigers’ defense, however, isn’t the historically dominant unit it once was. John Chavis’ group is surrendering an average of 466.3 yards in conference games, and the power appears to have shifted to the other side of the ball. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s revamped attack has reeled off at least 400 yards and 35 points in each of the first six games. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger has emerged as perhaps the season’s biggest turnaround: He’s already thrown 15 touchdowns after tossing 12 all of last season.
The matchup between the Tigers’ offense and a stingy Florida defense, which is allowing the second-fewest yards per game (217) in the country, will be worth the price of admission. But Murphy’s ability to command the Gators’ offense is enough to worry LSU coach Les Miles.
“I think he’s a guy that the game slows down to him when it comes to a tight game,” Miles said of Murphy on the league’s weekly teleconference. “I think that's the way he's supposed to be. We’ll have to pressure him in a number of ways, not just a steady diet of pressure or coverage. It’ll be a great challenge.”
Murphy has yet to play a game in front of a raucous road crowd. His only start outside of Gainesville came at Kentucky, and the confines of Tiger Stadium guarantee an incredibly rowdy atmosphere for a quarterback with only two career starts under his belt. Muschamp said the team has been pumping crowd noise into practice since fall camp to simulate the stifling environments of the SEC.
But while Muschamp knows there’s no substitute for Death Valley, he says Murphy is prepared for the kind of game that could ultimately shape the rest of Florida’s 2013 campaign.
“Tyler's a cool customer,” Muschamp said. “H's got a lot of confidence in what he's doing, he's very smart, and I think he’ll handle it very well.”
The other big ones
• No. 2 Oregon at No. 16 Washington: It’s hard to ignore what Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota has done to opposing defenses this season. Through five games, the redshirt sophomore has 21 total touchdowns (14 passing, seven rushing) and no interceptions. He’ll go against a defense that was allowing fewer than 11 points per game before Stanford hung 31 in a win over the Huskies last week. But the matchup to watch may be Washington quarterback Keith Price and tailback Bishop Sankey against a Ducks’ defense that quietly allows 11.8 points per game, second in the nation.
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• No. 12 Oklahoma vs. Texas: The last two quarterbacks to face the Sooners -- Notre Dame’s Tommy Rees and TCU’s Trevone Boykin -- completed only 50 percent of their passes and averaged just 135 yards per game. Can Texas backup Case McCoy, who will start in place of the injured David Ash, find some answers against coordinator Mike Stoops’ 3-3-5 defense?
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• No. 19 Northwestern at Wisconsin: We haven’t heard from the Badgers since they fell short at Ohio State two weeks ago. Coming off a bye week, Wisconsin and its power-running game will have a chance to get back on track against Northwestern. Melvin Gordon and company are always dangerous at Camp Randall Stadium.
What should fans expect from …
• Utah State: Losing starting quarterback Chuckie Keeton to a season-ending knee injury is a huge blow to the Utah State offense. Prior to going down against BYU last week, Keeton accounted for 67 percent of the Aggies’ total yardage in 2013. Now backup Craig Harrison (18-of-41, 185 yards, one touchdown against BYU) must defend Utah State’s home turf against visiting Boise State. The Broncos blitzed the Aggies in their last meeting, a 50-14 win in 2010, but this isn’t the same dominant Boise team. Chris Petersen’s crew has already lost two games.
• Michigan: The Wolverines squeaked by lowly Akron and UConn. They ripped 4-1 Minnesota by 29 points. Michigan remains unbeaten, but no one knows which version of Brady Hoke’s team will show up on a given Saturday. This week, the Wolverines will visit an inconsistent Penn State squad coming off a 44-24 loss to Indiana.
• Ole Miss: Just two weeks ago, the upstart Rebels were the surprise of college football. But two straight road losses to Alabama and Auburn -- by a combined score of 55-22 -- spoiled Ole Miss’ 3-0 start. The good news for Hugh Freeze’s team is that visiting Texas A&M can’t stop a good offense. The Aggies are giving up 476.4 yards per game, 112th nationally. The bad news? The Rebels are tasked with slowing down Johnny Manziel, Mike Evans and A&M’s prolific attack.
• Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas: Everyone remembers Thomas’ struggles in 2012, when he regressed after playing like a potential first-round NFL draft pick the year before. Through four games this fall, he completed just 48.5 percent of his throws with four touchdowns and six interceptions. But during the Hokies’ last two wins against Georgia Tech and North Carolina, Thomas regained 2011 form, completing 71.7 percent of his attempts for four scores with no picks. He’ll have to maintain that momentum if Virginia Tech hopes to avenge last season’s loss to Pittsburgh.
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Matchups to watch
• UCLA’s ground game vs. Cal’s defense: The No. 11 Bruins are likely to be without running back Jordon James (ankle), who has reeled off 115.8 yards per game and five touchdowns. Cal is giving up 219.8 rushing yards per game. UCLA backups Paul Perkins and Damien Thigpen could be set for a heavy workload.
• Utah quarterback Travis Wilson vs. Stanford’s pass rush: Wilson had only three interceptions all season heading into last Thursday’s game against UCLA. He tossed a whopping six picks in a 34-27 loss. Now, Wilson faces a Stanford squad that ranks 94th in the nation by allowing 260.8 passing yards per game. The Cardinal have forced seven turnovers thus far.
How many yards?
• Will Baylor put up vs. Kansas State? The knock on Baylor’s eye-popping offensive output is that the Bears haven’t played anyone of significance. Now Baylor, which set a school record with 864 total yards against West Virginia last week, will face Kansas State, which is 2-3 after losing to Oklahoma State last Saturday. It’s the first road game for Bryce Petty, Lache Seastrunk and company.
• Will Kentucky put up vs. Alabama? Kentucky can’t muster much power on offense. The Wildcats are averaging 283.3 total yards per game in their current three-game losing streak. Meanwhile, the Crimson Tide are allowing just 219.7 yards over the past three games. Alabama’s opponents have scored nine combined points during that stretch.
• Will Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion put up vs. Washington State? Nobody is talking about Oregon State’s Mannion, who currently leads the nation in passing yards (2,108) and passing touchdowns (21). Things could get interesting against Mike Leach’s Cougars, who rank 54th nationally against the pass but have allowed only five passing touchdowns in 2013.
• No. 25 Missouri at No. 7 Georgia: The Bulldogs are severely banged up through five games, and will be without key players such as tailback Keith Marshall and receivers Justin Scott-Wesley and Michael Bennett against the Tigers. That could prove to be good timing for Missouri, which is probably the quietest 5-0 team in the country. Mizzou has actually outgained Georgia on offense this season (2,719 yards to 2,650).
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• No. 14 South Carolina at Arkansas:
Amid the ongoing Jadeveon Clowney soap opera, South Carolina will face a hard-running Arkansas squad on the road. Hogs backs Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams
highlight a rushing attack that averages 216 yards per game. Clowney is expected to play, but Fayetteville hasn’t been kind to the Gamecocks
’ recently. They’ve dropped six of the last seven games at Arkansas.