When Luke Del Rio noticed Freddie Swain uncovered in Florida’s end zone and started to lob the ball toward his open receiver, only one thing ran through his mind.
“Oh God, I hope it wasn’t over his head,” Del Rio recalled thinking.
Luckily for him, it was right on target.
With less than one minute remaining and the Gators down by six to Kentucky, Del Rio hit Swain right in the chest for a 5-yard touchdown pass.
The throw gave UF its first lead of the game and cemented a 28-27 victory over the Wildcats on Saturday night, increasing Florida’s win streak over UK to 31 consecutive years.
The Gators (2-1, 2-0 SEC) were trailing by 13 points to Kentucky (3-1, 1-1 SEC) with under 12 minutes to go in the fourth quarter, but managed to score two touchdowns and shut out Kentucky’s offense over that final stretch.
Del Rio, who replaced starting quarterback Feleipe Franks in the middle of the third quarter, completed 9-of-14 passes for 74 yards and led UF on its first comeback win of the season.
“When you get thrown into a game, it’s fun to go in and play, but it’s not easy because everybody else is kinda into the rhythm of the game,” Del Rio said. “I tried to settle down the best I could.”
The redshirt junior drove Florida into the end zone on back-to-back drives in the fourth quarter, the first ending on a six-yard touchdown run from receiver Brandon Powell and the second ending on his game-winning lob to Swain with 43 seconds remaining left on the clock.
Kentucky, then trailing by one point, had one final possession to take back the lead before time expired, but came up short after kicker Austin MacGinnis missed a 57-yard field goal.
“We never were down on ourselves,” Swain said on the comeback victory. “Just keep your head in the game, stay focused.”
The Gators and Wildcats were neck and neck through the opening half.
Kentucky scored in the middle of the first quarter after receiver Blake Bone burned Florida safety Nick Washington for a 14-yard touchdown catch.
UF responded several drives later when freshman Kadarius Toney lined up in the wildcat formation and found a hole on the right side of the offensive line, bursting through untouched for a 36-yard score.
Toney’s touchdown was Florida’s first on the ground since Oct. 29, 2016, ending an eight-game drought dating back to its 24-10 win over Georgia last season.
UF and UK continued to go back and forth for the rest of the half, scoring one more touchdown each to tie the game, 14-14, before the second quarter ended.
However, as play resumed following the intermission, the Wildcats began to pull away.
Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson, who finished the night 17-for-25 with 196 yards and three touchdowns, completed a 23-yard pass to tight end C.J. Conrad to give UK a seven-point lead to open the third quarter.
After Franks was unable to produce any points for Florida’s offense, UK then notched two field goals from MacGinnis to increase its advantage to 13 at the 11:33 mark of the fourth quarter.
But the Gators weren’t discouraged. UF’s defense shutout the Wildcats over the final stretch of play, and Del Rio’s relief effort was just enough to keep Florida undefeated in SEC play.
“We knew we weren’t going to lose,” defensive lineman CeCe Jefferson said. “We just knew.”
Contact Dylan Dixon at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @dylanrdixon.
Luke Del Rio throws a pass during Florida's 28-27 win over Kentucky on Saturday night at Kroger Field.