LEXINGTON, Ky. – Tyler Murphy's comfort passing and running belied the fact that he was making his first career start for No. 20 Florida. Matt Jones showed that he could hold on the ball and carry it for a lot of yards.
By raising their games, both players help lift the Gators after a difficult week.
Jones rushed for 176 yards and a touchdown and Murphy threw for 156 yards and a score as Florida beat Kentucky 24-7 on Saturday night, its 27th straight win over the Wildcats.
Murphy also rushed for a 5-yard TD for the Gators (3-1, 2-0 Southeastern Conference), who lost starting quarterback Jeff Driskel and defensive tackle Dominique Easley to season-ending injuries but moved forward thanks to strong performances on offense and defense.
"It's been a long week for us psychologically and mentally as much as anything," Florida coach Will Muschamp said of the injuries' effect. "I'm very pleased with how our guys pulled together and came up here and did what we did."
Of Murphy, the coach added that he was "just proud of his performance. He continues to improve and gain confidence in his play."
Jones, who had 28 carries, outgained Kentucky by himself while he, Murphy and Trey Burton provided all of the Gators' touchdowns in the first half to extend the longest active winning streak over a major opponent. Florida gave Gators wide receivers coach Joker Phillips a happy return after his firing last fall as Wildcats coach.
Joe Mansour's 25-yard run on a fake field goal was the only TD for Kentucky (1-3, 0-1), which was outgained 402-173.
"We had a few opportunities to make it a game and didn't make them," Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said.
Despite failing to score a second-half touchdown, Florida had no problems moving the ball on Kentucky thanks to Murphy, who didn't miss a beat in completing his first 11 passes and rushing for 36 yards, variety that the Wildcats struggled to keep up with.
He threw a second-half interception, but it didn't matter as Florida picked off Maxwell Smith in the end zone en route to another stifling performance in which the Gators' SEC-leading defense held the Wildcats to just 48 yards rushing — seven below their average — and allowed just 1 of 8 third-down conversions. Florida also sacked Smith four times.
While the streak provided the game's story line on a warm, clear evening, Phillips' return to Commonwealth Stadium served up another interesting subplot. Fired last November after going 13-24 in three seasons — including three losses to the Gators — he was received cordially as he shook hands with some of his former players and Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart after the game.
Murphy, Burton and Jones made sure Phillips left with the last laugh.
"He wanted it bad," Burton said of Phillips. "I wouldn't say he wanted it more than any other game we played, but he had a lot of friends come through the hotel. He just wanted it like every other SEC game."
Judging from the opening drive, so did Murphy.
The redshirt junior completed all four passes for 33 yards and ran twice for 20 in leading Florida's 93-yard, 13-play march ending with Jones' 2-yard touchdown run. That set the stage for a 15-of-18 night in which he looked like a veteran.
"I had a few nerves just like every game," Murphy said. "I was able to hand the ball off to Matt Jones and throw a swing route to get the offense going. I was then able to settle down. I felt really calm as I had the support of teammates. They made my job real easy."
Kentucky tied it thanks to Mansour, who caught Florida completely off guard on a 42-yard fake field goal attempt. By the time the Gators realized what was happening, the 6-foot-2, 189-pounder was off and running down the right sideline for a 25-yard TD after holder Jared Leet flipped him the ball over his head.
That bizarre play had nothing on Jones' 67-yard run that led to Florida's second touchdown, the end of which is destined to be replayed on TV and the Internet as an example of how not to help a teammate.
In the clear and dashing right across the field past two Kentucky pursuers, wideout Quinton Dunbar rushed up behind in an attempt to push Jones forward but ended up tackling his teammate at the 12.
"We'll discuss that on the plane ride back," Muschamp joked.
Murphy simply turned it into a 14-7 lead two plays later, hitting Burton for a 9-yard touchdown that got the Gators in gear. Florida drove 62 yards for another score ending with Murphy's 5-yard run.