GAINESVILLE, Fla. — No. 23 Florida likely will be without quarterback Luke Del Rio against Southeastern Conference rival and 15th-ranked Tennessee next week.
Del Rio injured his left knee in a 32-0 victory against North Texas on Saturday night, a huge setback for the Gators and their championship hopes.
“It doesn’t look great, so we’ll do whatever,” said coach Jim McElwain, adding that former Purdue starter Austin Appleby would be the next guy up. “Somebody else will play and we’ll get some guys ready and move forward and get ready to go play next week.”
The injury overshadowed a dominant performance by Florida’s defense, which allowed a school-record 53 yards on 50 plays. The previous mark was 59 yards allowed against Western Carolina in 2006.
Defensive lineman Joshua Wheeler hit Del Rio low at the end of incomplete pass late in the third quarter, drawing a personal-foul penalty. Trainers and coach Jim McElwain rushed to the field as Del Rio ripped off his helmet. Del Rio eventually got up and walked to the locker room without any assistance.
But that was hardly the end of it for Florida (3-0). McElwain, who clearly believed Wheeler’s hit was dirty, started yelling at the North Texas (1-2) sideline and had to be restrained by officials and then his players.
“When you see something like that, it’s my responsibility when their parents aren’t here to be their parents,” McElwain said. “I care about these kids. They’re mine. I see something like that, it ain’t right.”
Both teams responded to McElwain’s tirade by stepping onto the field and moving toward the hash marks.
“He was trying to make a play and didn’t mean to do it,” North Texas coach Seth Littrell said. “We are not trying to take cheap shots here.”
On the next play, Florida guard Martez Ivey was ejected for grabbing linebacker Fred Scott by the facemask during a run. Ivey will not be suspended for the first half of next week’s game against the Volunteers.
“It got a little gritty after that went down,” Florida left tackle David Sharpe said.
Del Rio completed 14 of 25 passes for 186 yards, with an interception.
North Texas: Littrell, a former offensive assistant at Arizona, Indiana and North Carolina, is trying to change the culture at North Texas. Playing the Gators tough early — the score was 19-0 through three quarters — was a good start and something to build on in Littrell’s first season.
Florida: The tune-up games are over. While handling UMass, Kentucky and North Texas, Florida’s defense was dominant and its offense remains a work in progress — especially without Del Rio. It remains to be seen how the Gators’ young and inexperienced offensive line will fare against the meat of the schedule.
Appleby started 11 games the last two years for the Boilermakers, leaving Purdue after 19 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. As a graduate transfer, he was eligible to play right away. “You don’t ever want to be somebody’s caddie,” Appleby said. “You want the ball in your hands.”
McElwain said freshmen Kyle Trask and Feleipe Franks also may have to get ready to play.
Florida could have scored more but got stopped on fourth-and-2 plays inside the 10-yard line. Mark Thompson was stuffed for no gain from the 5 in the first quarter, and Del Rio threw incomplete from the 8 in the second. The Gators are now 0 for 3 on fourth-down tries inside the 10 this season.
Florida played without sophomore receiver Antonio Callaway, who missed the game because of bruised quadriceps. Callaway entered the game leading the Gators with 13 catches for 201 yards and two touchdowns. He is expected to play against Tennessee. The Gators got senior receiver Chris Thompson back, and he proved to be another deep threat. Thompson was suspended the first two games.
Florida should remain at or near No. 23 , making next week’s game at Tennessee the second in eight years in which both rivals were ranked. They also were both ranked in 2012. The Gators, who have won 11 in a row in the series, and Volunteers were both unranked the previous two meetings.
North Texas: Opens Conference USA play at Rice (0-3). The Mean Green are 2-4 all-time against the Owls.
Florida: Plays the Volunteers (3-0) for the 27th consecutive year. Florida is 20-6 during that stretch, including 11 straight wins that mark the longest streak since the programs first played in 1916.
AP college football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org