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Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Florida shows inexperience and growing pains in Kentucky loss

The Gators show need for improvement with sloppy loss to division rival Kentucky

Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson threw two costly interceptions against the Kentucky Wildcats Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022.
Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson threw two costly interceptions against the Kentucky Wildcats Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022.

Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson set the internet ablaze after his week-one performance against Utah. The sophomore signal caller sent NFL scouts and Heisman leaderboards into a frenzy. 

For all the hype Richardson received, he had made just two starts and completed 55 passes in his Florida career prior to Saturday’s bout with the Kentucky Wildcats. He’s a young and overall inexperienced player, something Gators faithfuls were painfully reminded of during UF’s 26-16 loss to the Wildcats.

Richardson struggled mightily against Kentucky. He completed just 40% of his passes and threw two costly interceptions that led to 14 UK points. Florida’s defense made a valiant effort to stifle Kentucky and give the Gators’ offense a chance, but Richardson and company never seized the opportunity to get back in the game.

“I feel like [the loss] is on me, I played terrible,” Richardson said. “I take full responsibility.”

The Gainesville native struggled to find his rhythm early in the game, and the early mistakes snowballed into a regrettable performance. On the opening drive of the game, Richardson found redshirt junior receiver Justin Shorter for a 16-yard gain. Three incompletions later, the Gators punted the ball away. 

That was the story of the game for the Florida offense. The Gators had chunk plays of 40, 28 and 24 yards, but they never consistently strung plays together for scoring drives. UF’s lone touchdown came after an interception by defensive end Gervon Dexter Sr. that gave the Gators a short field to work with. 

Richardson showed his youth with an inability to rebound from the early misfires. 

“I missed a couple of wide open throws so my confidence got shot,” Richardson said. “Mentally, I shot myself down a little bit.”

It wasn’t just Richardson who showed growing pains on the biggest stage, but head coach Billy Napier as well. Saturday was Napier’s second game leading the Gators and his first against a Southeastern Conference foe. 

Napier, who also calls the offense for the Gators, said the team’s execution, or lack thereof, was the main driver in Saturday’s loss — something he said was ultimately on himself and the coaching staff. 

“We can coach better; we can play better, and that starts with me,” Napier said.

Florida’s offense outgained Kentucky on the night, with the Gators piling up 279 yards to the Wildcats’ 272. Florida didn’t commit many penalties — just three on the night — and the special teams made no consequential mistakes while Kentucky conceded a safety and missed a field goal.

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The game came down to offensive mistakes and Napier recognized that.

“We gave [Kentucky] a pick-six. We gave them a short field after another interception,” Napier said. “Two touchdowns in the game. Ultimately, it's gonna be hard to win when you do that.”

Florida’s best unit on the night, the defense, is the most veteran group on the team. Fifth-year senior safety Trey Dean III led the team with nine tackles. Sixth-year senior linebacker Ventrell Miller made several big tackles before missing time late with an injury. Junior defensive tackle Gervon Dexter made seven tackles in addition to his pick. 

“A lot of good on defense,” Napier said. “I thought they did a fantastic job, and there was no quit.”

Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops has led the Wildcats since 2012 and is the winningest coach in program history. His quarterback, senior Will Levis, is in his second full season as the starting signal caller. 

Stoops’s program is as established as any in the SEC. Levis is as seasoned a starter as you could have in college football. That showed itself in the Swamp Saturday.

The Wildcats played sound defense and forced Richardson into mistakes. Levis didn’t play like a superstar — completing just 54% of his passes for 202 yards, one touchdown and one interception — but he made few errors and kept his composure against a physical Florida defense.

Kentucky looked a lot like the same team that won 10 games last season and was among the better teams in the SEC East. Florida looked nothing like the team that upset a top-10 Utah team and rose to No. 12 in the AP poll. 

Stoops has coached 75 games in the SEC. Napier just coached his first. Levis made his 15th start for the Wildcats, while Richardson made his third for Florida. 

Napier sees the rawness of Richardson and his young team, hoping Saturday’s loss is a learning moment moving forward.

“I think he’s really gonna grow and improve and learn the lessons and grow his character relative to how he responds,” Napier said. “With these things comes opportunity if you have the right attitude and approach.”

Florida will have its chance to rebound Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium when it hosts the South Florida Bulls.

Contact Topher Adams at Follow him on Twitter @Topher_Adams.

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Topher Adams

Topher Adams is a third-year journalism major and one of the assistant sports editors for the Spring 2023 semester. He also covered Florida football lacrosse for the paper and loves to follow MLS soccer and professional lacrosse.

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