With starting running back Matt Jones (viral infection) out for Florida’s season opener against Toledo, the Gators handed the running game to junior Mack Brown.
He did not fumble.
In his first college start, Brown rushed for a career-high 112 yards and two touchdowns, as No. 9 Florida ran the ball down Toledo’s throat to begin the season with a 24-6 victory — the program’s 24th straight win in season openers.
"When you’re able to run the ball as effectively as we did, then we win the game," coach Will Muschamp said.
Brown made his presence known on Florida’s first drive of the game.
The junior running back ran on six of the Gators’ first 11 plays and put UF on the board with a 1-yard push through the middle. The score was Florida’s first opening-drive touchdown in a season opener since 2009.
Brown was responsible for the Gators’ second touchdown as well. With Florida up 10-3 after a field goal by Austin Hardin, Brown put the Gators ahead by two touchdowns on a 14-yard run over the left guard.
"I got butterflies when I scored," Brown said.
Said Muschamp: "Nothing shocks me of what he did today … I was expecting him to run hard, and he did."
Brown’s 25 carries allowed Florida to dominate the time of possession as the Gators had control of the ball for nearly two-thirds of the clock.
"We wanted to run the ball because of what [Toledo does] offensively," Muschamp said. "We did not want to get into an 80 (to) 90 play deal.
"Our game plan was basically: possession of the ball offensively, be able to run the ball effectively."
Quarterback Jeff Driskel managed to keep the ball out of the opposition’s hands.
The junior signal-caller started the game by completing his first seven passes.
He finished the game 17 for 22 — a 77.3 percent completion percentage, which is his best in a game that he threw more than one pass.
Although Driskel threw for fewer than 200 yards on Saturday, he completed a pass to eight different receivers during the game. Senior Trey Burton led the receiving corps with five catches for 69 yards, including Florida’s longest reception — a 26-yard completion over the middle.
"I think we did some nice things in the throwing game, especially with some new faces," Muschamp said.
But when the offense stalled at the start of the third quarter, it was a defensive newcomer who gave Florida the momentum it left in the locker room.
Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, playing in his first college game, snagged a pass in front of Toledo wide receiver Alonzo Russell. Hargreaves returned the interception — Florida’s lone takeaway — for 15 yards, putting the Gators in the red zone with 3:34 left in the quarter.
"He got his hands on some balls in camp," cornerback Jaylen Watkins said, "so I wasn’t surprised."
Following the interception, Driskel connected with Ajagbe to put Florida ahead by 17.
Although Florida forced only one turnover, the defense had a game that lived up to last year’s top-5 ranking in 2012.
Juniors Ronald Powell, making his first start since suffering an ACL tear in 2012, and Leon Orr both recorded sacks, while five different players made tackles behind the line.
Senior Dominique Easley led the pass rush, forcing three hurried passes from Rockets quarterback Terrance Owens.
"That’s what Florida is about," Easley said.
"Speed and power. Speed and explosiveness."
Owens never got comfortable in the pocket, completing only 45 percent of his passes as the Gators hurried him eight times and sacked him twice. The Rockets only managed 205 yards of total offense.
Florida kept Toledo’s offense off balance throughout the game When the Rockets did get into the red zone, the Gators defense stepped up to meet the challenge, forcing Toledo to settle for a field goal.
"You always want to come out with a shutout," Easley said.
Follow Adam Lichtenstein on Twitter @ALichtenstein24.