GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A month ago, quarterback Austin Appleby didn’t know if he’d play another snap for Florida.
His two-game stint as an injury fill-in ended with lackluster results, Luke Del Rio resumed his starting role and the graduate transfer from Purdue was looking at the likelihood of finishing his collegiate career running the second-team offense in practice.
Now, he might be the Gators’ quarterback the rest of the way.
With Del Rio out “a while” with a shoulder injury, and with his job already in jeopardy based on the offense’s struggles, Appleby made his third start of the season Saturday and showed something in the No. 22 Gators’ 20-7 win over South Carolina at The Swamp.
That something was his full range, both the good and the bad — working in a fumbled snap near the goal line and an interception — but he also got the offense moving. He finished 17-of-21 passing for 201 yards, 2 touchdowns and that interception along with 34 rushing yards.
The offense put up 372 yards and surely would have scored more points if not for three costly turnovers in Gamecocks territory — the other being a fumble by running back Mark Thompson — along with a dropped pass on a third down to halt another promising drive.
“It was my first start in The Swamp. It was my last start in The Swamp. It’s a day that I’m never going to forget,” Appleby said. “I’m going to cherish it.”
No, he won’t get to play again inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium as the Gators (7-2, 5-2 SEC) wrapped up their home schedule Saturday, but he should get every opportunity to be the starting quarterback the rest of the way.
Appleby is a great postgame interview. He can be colorful and insightful, perhaps a little irrationally confident in some of his comments, but always quotable.
There was one question he wasn’t biting on Saturday, though — whether he feels he’s now the Gators’ quarterback for the rest of the season.
“I don’t count my reps, I make my reps count,” he said with a big smile, repeating one of his go-to lines. “But I’m going to be ready to do everything I can do to be the most prepared quarterback in the country, the most prepared quarterback on this team. If my number is called, I’m up for the challenge and I’m excited for the challenge.”
Ultimately, the quality of his play moving forward will answer that question.
A segment of the fan base pined for true freshman Feleipe Franks to get his shot, to get a look at the future.
But these Gators still have plenty at stake in the present with the SEC East title within their control, and Appleby showed enough Saturday to build on moving forward.
Sure, facing the rebuilding Gamecocks (5-5, 3-5) is different from traveling to LSU and Florida State the next two weeks. But to see Florida move down the field on its opening possession, despite being down to its inexperienced third-string center, and score a quick touchdown was a welcomed sight.
Appleby sparked the drive with a 33-yard run on a read-option play through a gaping hole on the left side. He completed both of his passes on that series as well, including a 6-yard touchdown to tight end C’yontai Lewis.
Appleby found the end zone again on the Gators’ fourth possession with an 18-yard touchdown on a perfect fade pass to Ahmad Fulwood, and really, the offense should have scored on the two series in between as well. Thompson’s fumble ended the team’s second drive, which had reached the Gamecocks’ 22, and the botched snap on the 5 ended a 13-play, 81-yard drive the next time.
This is just a pretty looking pass.
— SEConCBS (@SEConCBS) November 12, 2016
The Gators didn’t manage any offensive touchdowns a week ago at Arkansas. They managed just 241 yards in that 31-10 loss and totaled 231 the week before in a defense-driven win over Georgia.
Fulwood said Appleby brought “a nice confidence, nice swagger” to the offense Saturday.
“You know, Austin’s a guy that’s not going to freak out or let us freak out. He kept us very level-headed and he kept us moving forward,” Fulwood said. “Things happen in the game, people get hurt, stuff happens, but we’ve still got a job to do. He reminded us of that, and he kept it cool and led us to the victory.”
It wasn’t perfect. That’s been the knock on Appleby throughout his career, after he matched his 19 passing touchdowns at Purdue with 19 interceptions.
In his first start for Florida earlier this fall at Tennessee, he dazzled in the opening half with several big strikes before contributing a costly second-half interception during the Gators’ collapse. At Vanderbilt the next week, he threw for just 144 yards as merely a game manager in an uninspiring outing for the offense.
Austin Appleby as Florida’s starting quarterback
|at Tennessee (L, 38-28)||23||39||296||3||1|
|at Vanderbilt (W, 13-6)||19||28||144||0||0|
|South Carolina (W, 20-7)||17||21||201||2||1|
More than anything, the miscues eat at coach Jim McElwain. It’s the first thing he mentioned about his quarterback Saturday.
“If we don’t throw the ball on the ground like we did … it’s the second time now down in the red area, Austin on the snap. The same thing happened at Vanderbilt there,” he said.
The fumbled snap Saturday was certainly costly at that point of the game. Appleby’s interception, meanwhile, came at the end of the second quarter, on a play that started just inside South Carolina territory.
The Gators either didn’t ask him to throw downfield much overall or he chose safer reads, and he was again more of a game manager in the second half while completing 6-of-7 passes for 54 yards after halftime.
By that point, though, the game was in the Gators’ control and the quarterback had been a key contributing factor to that comfortable lead.
“He did a nice job,” McElwain said. “You know, hit one of their guys in the head for a pick there right before half. Last time I checked it wasn’t the same colored helmet we were wearing, so probably would like that one over. I don’t like the snap on the ground, but you know what, he did a good job. You know, we got a couple of quarterback reads in there for him and I think that slowed them down a bit with what they were trying to do, so I think that was a good job by the offense.”
It was good enough, at least, and that’s more than could be said the last couple games.
Afterward, Appleby was asked what these last few weeks were like for him, not knowing whether he’d get on the field again for the Gators.
He called it “trying times” and said he had to remain “faithful” that he had a purpose on the team.
“I think you look inside yourself. It would be easy for somebody to say, to heck with this, I’m going to sit at the end of the bench and pout. That’s not who I am. That’s not the way I was raised,” he said. “And I owe it to my teammates to be ready, because I am at the drop of a hat. They count on me, so I can’t for one second even think about packing it in. That’s just not who I am.”
Said McElwain: “I’m happy for him. He prepared, he prepared well, he’s prepared the whole time he’s been here and you know what, he did a good job with the win.”