With a 21-10 lead in the fourth quarter and possession within scoring territory, it felt like Kentucky was on the verge of running Florida out of Kroger Field. Feleipe Franks had just been carted off due to injury, the Gators had zero running game, and Sawyer Smith was dealing despite two turnovers that gave Dan Mullen’s team their only two scores of the game. What followed was a series of unfortunate bounces caused by many factors.
Despite struggling in short-yardage runs in his career, Kentucky gave A.J. Rose a carry on both third and fourth down. On the first play of the last quarter, the Wildcats went to the old and reliable wildcat formation. The redshirt junior was stuffed and the Gators would go on to win the final quarter by a count of 19-0 led by backup quarterback Kyle Trask.
Kentucky did a lot of good things, but this one will be remembered for what happened in the final 15 minutes. On the game-winning touchdown drive, a questionable targeting call on T.J. Carter turned a 3rd-and-long into a first down in scoring territory. This was caused by a Sawyer Smith interception. On the next possession, Kentucky decided to eat clock and settled for a field goal instead taking a swing at a touchdown. Chance Poore’s 35-yarder was wide right and Florida recorded a late touchdown to give them 76 over their 138 rushing yards.
What could have been.
Kentucky collected 407 yards (140 rushing, 267 passing) on 76 plays. The Wildcats put up a season low 5.4 yards per play, but it wasn’t from their inefficiency. The Wildcats were a very effective 8-of-15 on third down with Sawyer Smith making plays with both his arms and legs. In his first SEC start, the grad transfer made some plays but had some ball security issues.
After producing a takeaway on the first possession of the game, Kentucky gave it right back to Florida three plays later. That cannot happen. This allowed Florida to get to a quick 7-0 lead. After going into halftime with a 14-7 lead, Kentucky marched 57 yards in nine plays and ate up over five minutes of clock before the former Troy quarterback threw an interception in the red zone.
If it weren’t for these two turnovers, Kentucky could have conceivably been up by three or four possessions in the middle of the third quarter. Those plays changed the game and allowed Florida to hang around long enough before they caught a wave of momentum in the fourth quarter. Smith completed 65.7 percent of his throws, put up a solid 7.6 yards per attempt and now has four passing touchdowns through five quarters of play. It took Terry Wilson three games to reach that number last year. UK’s new quarterback’s best throw may be the fade route.
Kentucky efficiently moved the football, but the lack of the splash play held the offense back. The Wildcats only had one run to go over 20 yards with just three passes going the same distance. UK did not have one play go 30-plus yards after hitting on multiple in the first two games. Todd Grantham’s defense took away the big play and that was one of the biggest keys to victory.
On the ground, A.J. Rose really struggled only recording 46 yards on 14 carries. If you take away is 21-yard run in the third quarter, the redshirt junior had 25 yards on 13 carries. That is unacceptable. Kavosiey Smoke continues to get the job done (16 carries, 81 yards, 5.1 yards per attempt) and currently ranks seventh in the SEC in rushing yards. It might be time for a changing of the guard.
For those wanting the tight ends to get more involved in the passing game, they had to be thrilled with what they saw in the loss. Justin Rigg had five grabs and was one of Sawyer Smith’s favorite targets. Keaton Upshaw recorded his first touchdown and this is a position that could benefit a ton for the the new quarterback. Lynn Bowden, Jr. did his thing (7 grabs, 70 yards) and ranks second in the SEC in receptions. Ahmad Wagner continues to mesmerize.
As expected, Kentucky’s offensive line won their matchup. Against the top pass rush group in the country, UK only allowed one sack and were a key factor that allowed Kentucky to dominate the time of possession battle (34:55-25:05). Mark Stoops loves to win that and the rushing battle. UK’s offensive line led the way in both regards.
Kentucky allowed 438 yards (138 rushing, 300 passing) on just 57 plays. The Gators put up 7.7 yards per play and that was the most UK has surrendered since Lamar Jackson steamrolled the Wildcats in 2017. The Gators consistently hit on big plays, only punted once, and scored on four of five red zone trips (three touchdowns and one field goal). They did all this with two running backs and zero running game.
Lamical Perine was a preseason All-SEC selection who Kentucky limited to 27 yards on 14 carries. Before Josh Hammond’s 70-plus yard jet sweep touchdown to put the game on ice, Florida rushed for just 62 yards on 26 carries. Kentucky dominated the point of attack, but it didn’t matter because of the success Florida had through the air.
The Gators passed for 300 yards on just 30 attempts and completed 70 percent of their passes. The longest pass of the day was just for 32 yards so they were consistently able to really hurt Kentucky with intermediate throws. Through three games, Kentucky is allowing foes to complete over 60 percent of their passes and twice opponents have tossed for 300 yards. At least they are forcing some takeaways.
It’s important to remember that Kentucky was without starting free safety Yusuf Corker for most of the game, but this group still has a ways to go in coverage. On Florida’s first touchdown, there was a coverage mix up between freshmen Taj Dodson and Jamari Brown. Quandre Mosely was flagged for a key pass interference call in the fourth quarter to go with a bunch of other issues. The Wildcats need the pass rush to step it up.
Brad White’s defense only recorded one sack yesterday and are struggling to finish successful pass rushes. Kentucky is consistently getting past the offensive line, but they have been unable to finish plays. Kordell Looney picked a good time to record the first strip sack of his career.
Now to the targeting.
Thinks to a great edge rush from Jordan Wright, T.J. Carter finished off a sack that would have created a 3rd-and-17 for Florida at their own 42 with under six minutes left in the game. Instead targeting is called, one of Kentucky’s best defensive players is out for the first half next week, and Mark Stoops was rightfully upset about the call after the game.
After a very well played three quarters with some timely stops, Kentucky could not buy one in the final quarters thanks to some savvy play from a backup quarterback and sone bounces that just would not go their way.
There was only one return all game and Max Duffy continues to be dominant. The junior punter turned a shank into a 60-plus yard boot and twice pinned Florida inside the 20. Grant McKinniss continues to be great as a kickoff specialist, but this game will be remembered for the missed kick in crunch time.
In first ever crunch time kick, Chance Poore missed a 35-yard field goal and that may have costed Kentucky the win. The Wildcats have a chance to be a dominant special teams unit this season, but they need their placekicker to make field goals.
For the third game in a row, Kentucky came out of the halftime locker room and dominated the third quarter. The Wildcats had a two-possession lead and were in position to land a knockout punch to a top-10 team. What happened next was a “whatever could go wrong, went wrong” situation.
The Wildcats were stuffed on fourth-and-short, got shredded by a backup quarterback, received a very unfortunate targeting call, and missed a field goal that has to be made. A lot had to break Florida’s way to win the game and they all did in the final 15 minutes. Sometimes that’s how this game works.
Moving forward, the Wildcats have no time to sulk. On deck are consecutive road trips to Mississippi State and South Carolina with both likely going to be one-possession games in the fourth quarter. UK must refocus and build on some of the good things from Week Three.
Sawyer Smith looks like a capable passer and made some big time throws, but the ball security issues must be fixed. On offense, expect for Kavosiey Smoke to take over in the backfield and for Ahmad Wagner to receive more vertical targets. On defense, it was great to see UK’s run defense step up to the moment, but the pass defense still needs a lot of work. The UK pass rush must help out its young secondary. After a brutal miss, Chance Poore must bounce back. He is going to have plenty of more big kicks in his career.
It was a very tough loss, but the season is just getting started. Kentucky is very healthy through three weeks, has a ton of potential on offense and the defense is doing a great job producing takeaways. Now we get to see what this team can do on the road against, potentially, two more backup quarterbacks.
On to Mississippi State.