Florida solidified itself as a top-ranked defense through four games. The improvement under new defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong propelled the Gators to the fifth-best defense in the country.
Florida’s defense looked hopeless against the Wildcats Saturday.
Broken tackles, costly penalties and countless chunk plays throughout the first half allowed Kentucky to maintain momentum and cruise past the Gators in a one-sided contest.
The No. 22 Florida Gators (3-2, 1-1 SEC) fell to the Kentucky Wildcats (5-0, 2-0 SEC) 33-14 Saturday afternoon at Kroger Field. Florida’s run defense, which allowed 328 yards total in its first four games, surrendered 329 yards and three touchdowns.
“300-plus on the ground, that’s not who we are and not who we want to be and we’re going to get it fixed,” said UF head coach Billy Napier.
Kentucky senior running back Ray Davis — who ran for 130 yards against the Gators as a Vanderbilt Commodore last season — was the difference maker in the matchup. Florida’s defense allowed Davis to score three touchdowns and run for 206 yards in the first half.
The Wildcats marched 90 yards down the field on their first drive but fell just short of the goal line after sophomore wide receiver Barion Brown dropped a wide-open touchdown in the back right corner of the end zone.
Kentucky opted to kick a field goal, which levied a sense of optimism for the Gators as they were down by just three points.
However, the game quickly took a turn when Florida redshirt junior quarterback Graham Mertz attempted to connect with freshman tight end Arlis Boardingham on third down.
Boardingham tried to corral the catch between three Kentucky defenders. The ball popped free, and Wildcats linebacker Trevin Wallace snagged the loose ball for an interception.
Kentucky began their second drive inside of the red zone and took just two plays to make their way into the endzone. Senior transfer quarterback Devin Leary connected with Davis on a nine-yard pass and the Wildcats extended their lead to 10.
Florida mustered just 57 total yards in its next three drives as Kentucky continued to take advantage of the several opportunities it was given.
The Gators pinned the Wildcats to the back of their end zone and nearly forced a three-and-out, but a leaping penalty by freshman cornerback Dijon Johnson granted Kentucky a first down that erased a chance for Florida’s offense to take over near midfield.
“I think we just got a young player out there that made a poor decision and he knows he made a mistake,” Napier said. “That was a pivotal moment in the game.”
Davis exploded through the heart of the Gators’ defensive line and past their secondary on the very next play for a 75-yard score to take a 16-0 lead. Florida blocked the Wildcats extra point attempt and nearly ran all the way back into its own endzone for a two-point score.
Davis delivered the final blow in Kentucky’s next drive and Mertz found redshirt freshman tight end Hayden Hansen in the endzone moments before the conclusion of the first half.
The Wildcats senior running back found the endzone again at the end of the Wildcats’ first drive of the second half. Davis had nearly 100 yards more than the entire Gators offense when he broke past the goal line. He continued to be featured throughout the second half in order to chew time off the clock.
Florida showed glimpses of hope in its first drive of the third quarter despite being down three scores. On fourth down with three yards to go, Mertz miraculously flipped a ball to sophomore running back Trevor Etienne while being wrapped up by a Kentucky defender, inches away from the ground.
Etienne ran perpendicular to the first down marker toward the opposite side of the field before making his way ten yards down the field and past the sticks for a first down.
Mertz connected with senior wide receiver Ricky Pearsall on a 33-yard pass on the next play. Pearsall maneuvered past a Kentucky defender and stretched across the pylon for the Gators’ final score of the contest before the Wildcats added three more points on a 50-yard field goal in the fourth quarter.
“Fundamentally, [I’m] very disappointed in our team,” Napier said. “Kentucky deserved to win today, the Gators did not.”
Florida will return home and host the Vanderbilt Commodores (2-3, 0-1 SEC) at 4 p.m. Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. The game will be broadcast on SEC Network.
Luke Adragna is a third-year journalism student and the Florida Gators football reporter at The Alligator. He is a cat ethusiast and completes the NYT Daily Mini in less than a minute each day.