On a night where quarterback Anthony Richardson and the Florida offense looked like a shell of the unit seen on the field against Utah, its biggest mistake came in the dwindling minutes of the third quarter.
Richardson turned and fired to his right, looking for redshirt sophomore running back Nay’Quan Wright on a quick curl route. Wright, however, took off up field and the pass was easily jumped by Kentucky cornerback Keidron Smith.
Sixty-five yards later the Wildcats took the lead. It was one they never gave back.
“Just got to play better. I feel like I let everybody down, especially the defense,” Richardson said.
No. 20 Kentucky (2-0, 1-0 SEC) silenced the Florida hype as quickly as it started Saturday night, defeating the Gators (1-1, 0-1 SEC) 26-16. Both teams made a plethora of mistakes, but it was the Wildcats who prevailed regardless. With the win, UK has now beaten Florida in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1976-1977.
“Between the lines each week you have to earn the right to win,” Florida head coach Billy Napier said. “And I think when we evaluate this game, there’s no question we didn't earn the right to win.”
After a less than explosive drive from Florida’s offense to begin Saturday night’s affair, it was the defense that made the first statement.
The Gators forced Kentucky into a three and out, capped by a 2-yard tackle for loss by linebacker Ventrell Miller. The redshirt senior was all over the Wildcats’ swing pass and blew up the play.
On the change of position Richardson came out slinging the rock.
He fired a strike to wide receiver Ricky Pearsall down the seam for a 24-yard gain. The drive would eventually stall out, though, and Florida settled for a field goal. Kicker Adam Mihalek knocked in the 39-yard attempt to open the scoring.
As Kentucky started to drive in UF territory, the Gators defense began to look soft. UK quarterback Will Levis strung together three straight completions on the drive and had his team a first down away from the red zone.
Gators defensive lineman Justus Boone had a problem with that.
Boone screamed off the edge unblocked and leveled Levis. The 7-yard sack was flagged for targeting — and then overturned. The massive hit stalled the Wildcats’ momentum and their subsequent punt gave Florida the ball back.
The Gators’ drive ended as quick as it started, and Levis led Kentucky back onto the field. The Wildcats again got a little bit of something going, before another sack killed the drive. This time it was linebacker Amari Burney — a name Florida fans are all too familiar with after his game-sealing interception last Saturday. The senior jumped all over Levis, bringing down the UK signal caller for a loss of 10.
The Gators’ first possession of the second quarter never got moving, and the wounds were self inflicted. Richardson missed three throws, at this point in the game he was a less-than-ideal 4-13 passing. Florida also got hit with a 15-yard penalty on a blindside block by wide receiver Justin Shorter. His hit injured UK safety Jalen Geiger, who left the field on a cart.
Minutes later, Levis let it fly. He hit Kentucky wide receiver Dane Key 55 yards down the field for the Wildcats’ first points of the night. Key rose up to high point the catch over Florida defensive back Jalen Kimber, who couldn’t break up the pass.
When Florida got the ball back the fireworks kept coming. The Gators opened their drive with a 40-yard carry by running back Montrell Johnson Jr. An incompletion, a rush of no gain and another incompletion later, UF was lining up for another field goal. Mihalek was money once again, this time from 50 yards out, and Florida trailed 7-6.
The Gators defense, which had been living in the UK backfield for most of the first half, was hungry to make a game-changing play. As Levis dropped back on second-and-6, Florida defensive end Brenton Cox Jr. immediately got in his face. The ball floated from Levis’ hand straight up into the sky. As it fell back toward the turf, fellow defensive lineman Gervon Dexter Sr. was in the right place at the right time, intercepting the pass.
“We just want to play dominant in the whole game. Whether it’s pass rush or the run, we just want to be dominant,” Dexter said.
Florida took over on the 34-yard line and needed just five plays to score. Freshman running back Trevor Etienne accounted for 28 yards and scored the first touchdown as a Gator. He also caught the ensuing two-point conversion from Richardson. UF took a 14-7 lead with 5:49 till the half.
Craziness occurred a few plays later. The Wildcats lined up to punt on fourth-and-6 and the snap sailed over UK punter Colin Goodfellow’s head. When the ball settled in the Florida endzone, Goodfellow sacrificially — and illegally — kicked the ball out of bounds. The quick turn of events resulted in a safety and two points for the Gators.
With 2:47 on the clock and Florida lining up in the shadow of its own endzone, Richardson looked to thread a sidearm pass to tight end Keon Zipperer. Kentucky outside linebacker Jordan Wright was directly in the passing lane, however, and intercepted Richardson — his first turnover of the season.
The Wildcats set up shop 6 yards from six points, and three plays later they crossed the goal line. Kentucky’s extra point attempt went askew, however, and left the Gators ahead 16-13 as the teams headed to their locker rooms.
The second half began with an exchange of punts. The Wildcats regained possession at the 12:18 mark in the third quarter. The excitement ramped back up when Levis looked for wide receiver DeMarcus Harris. The pass deflected off his hands, but into the waiting arms of wide receiver Chauncey Magwood.
Kentucky kept moving the ball and eventually crossed into the redzone. On a critical third-and-3 on the Florida 6-yard line, Levis bulleted a screen pass just out of his intended target's reach. UK opted for a field goal, tying the game at 16.
The Gators longed for production from its offense. Richardson and Wright’s miscommunication, which was confirmed by Napier, instead gave them a mistake that could never be rebounded from. Florida’s next drive stalled and punter Jeremy Crawshaw was sent onto the field for the fifth time.
The Wildcats carried possession from the end of the third quarter into the start of the fourth. After an incomplete pass from Levis on third-and-11 on the UF 42, Kentucky gave possession back to Florida.
The Gators, trailing by seven, needed their offense to give them something, anything. Napier pressed the issue and elected to keep Richardson and company on the field for a fourth-and-3 on its own side of the 50-yard line.
The decision did not pan out, but did not prove to be disastrous. After failing to pick up the first down, Kentucky took over. The Wildcats would have yet another special teams blunder, however, missing a 38-yard field goal.
Time against them, the Gators offense trotted back out. Nothing was brewing for Florida, though, and a three and out handed the ball right back to Levis and the Wildcats.
Kentucky kicker Matt Ruffolo gave his team extra breathing room with a 26-yard field goal as the clock ticked down toward its final minute.
“Coaching is a lot like teaching,” Napier said. “When the student is not performing as well as you want them to, you’ve got to take a look in the mirror.”
UF will be back under the Swamp’s lights at 7:30 p.m. next Saturday when the South Florida Bulls come to Gainesville.
Joseph Henry is a fourth-year sports journalism major and is the Alligator's sports editor. He previously worked as senior news director, assistant sports editor, men's basketball beat reporter, volleyball beat reporter and golf beat reporter. He enjoys sitting down to watch a movie as often as possible, collecting vinyl and drinking Dr. Pepper.