Driskel helps lead Gators to bowl victory

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Embattled UF quarterback Jeff Driskel was all but out the door when the Gators tapped him on the shoulder and told him to hold on a minute.

The 21-year-old’s enigmatic career presumably would end quietly this weekend, while the Gators’ focus turned toward the future.

Prior to Saturday’s 28-20 win against East Carolina University in Birmingham Bowl, new coach Jim McElwain confirmed Driskel had been released from his scholarship at UF. The fourth-year junior from Oviedo could enroll in a new school as early as Monday.

“That’s up for him,” McElwain said. “We all have choices and I’m not going to hold him hostage, certainly.”

When first-year quarterback Treon Harris left the game with an elbow injury late in the third quarter, the Gators (7-5) turned to Driskel to help end a difficult season on a high note.

Driskel did not let his team down.

“I think he was outstanding,” interim coach D.J. Durkin said. “I think it says a lot about him as a person.”

Driskel was just 8-of-17 passing for 48 yards, but UF receivers dropped several passes. He ran for only 11 yards, not including a four-yard sack.

But with East Carolina’s offense positioned to get the ball one more time, Driskel scooted nine yards on a bootleg with a minute remaining and UF facing 3rd-and-4.

The play highlighted the dual-threat ability that earned Driskel coach Will Muschamp’s faith and a starting job the past three seasons.

An injury, though, ended his 2013 season. Turnovers in 2014 allowed Harris to overtake Driskel amid a cacophony of criticism from Gator Nation.

“The amount of adversity he’s had to go through in his career, to be honest, I don’t know if I could last through that,” Durkin said. “That says a lot about him and says a lot about our team. Our guys still believe in him, he believes in his teammates, and I’m just happy for how it all worked out.”

Yet, Driskel ultimately played a minor supporting role in the Gators’ first postseason win since the 2012 Gator Bowl.

The UF defense yield 536 yards and played 101 snaps against East Carolina. The nation’s ninth-ranked unit entering Saturday also made a slew of timely big plays.

A pick-six by veteran Brian Poole tied the game at 7-7 and shifted the momentum away from East Carolina high-powered offense. Freshman end Gerald Willis forced a second-quarter fumble by Pirates quarterback Shane Carden on the UF 1 with the Gators leading 21-7. In his final game before entering the NFL draft, junior end Dante Fowler Jr. had three sacks and two quarterback hurries.

But no play was bigger than All-SEC cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III’s interception in the end zone with 1:20 remaining in the game and ECU on the UF 5. The 66th pass attempt from Carden was intended for star receiver Justin Hardy, who finished with 11 catches for 160 yards and a touchdown.

“I’m not sure I’ve ever been a part of a game where the ball has been thrown (67) times,” Durkin said. “That’s what we knew we were getting into, and I think our entire secondary did an outstanding job.”

Carden finished with 427 passing yards and two touchdowns, but UF also intercepted him twice, forced a fumble and sacked him four times.

The Gators offense — ranked 13th of 14 SEC teams — finished with a modest 339 yards, but received some unexpected contributions to hold off the Pirates (8-5) before a crowd of 30,083 at Legion Field.

Redshirt freshman tailback Adam Lane entered the game with just 72 rushing yards and finished with 109 on 16 carries to earn most valuable player honors. He opened UF’s third offensive series with a 48-yard run to the East Carolina 20, and followed with runs of 3, 15 and 2 yards to give UF a 14-7 lead.

When the Pirates trimmed the Gators’ lead to 21-14 early in the second half, Harris connected with sophomore Ahmad Fulwood for an 86-yard touchdown. Fulwood, who had 113 receiving yards all season, caught ball in the right flat, where a block by tackle Rod Johnson sprung him for the longest play since Muschamp arrived in 2011.

“Words can’t really describe how I feel about these guys as a team,” Durkin said. “I’m so happy for our players to go get that win.”

egthompson@orlandosentinel.com

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