Date published: Sunday, September 28, 2003
The Kentucky football team needed certain things to happen to have a chance to knock off Florida for the first time in 17 years yesterday.
And for three quarters, they all happened. The Cats needed to get off to a quick start, and they did, scoring on their first possession.UK also needed the Gators to turn the ball over. Florida gave the ball away twice with the Cats converting one of those miscues into a score.
With the checklist seemingly complete, Kentucky had a 21-3 lead in the fourth quarter.
But in the end, like so many times, none of it mattered.
UK erased much of the good fortune with mistakes of its own that allowed Florida to rally for a 24-21 win before a crowd of 70,579 at Commonwealth Stadium.
If the above scenario sounds familiar, that's because it is. Rewind to the Tennessee game in 2001, when Kentucky let a big lead slip away in the fourth quarter of a 38-35 loss. Or the LSU game from last year, when the Tigers completed a Hail Mary on the game's final play to stun the Cats.
But Kentucky Coach Rich Brooks dismissed post-game theories that the Wildcats' program is under some kind of curse.
"There was nothing jinxed about the game today. We just didn't make the plays when we needed to make them," Brooks said. "We made enough plays to be in position to finish the deal. We just didn't finish it.
"I don't buy into the `Woe-is-me, Woe-we're-Kentucky' syndrome. I don't buy that one iota."
Then again, this is the first time Brooks has experienced such a loss on the UK sidelines. For guys like Derek Abney who have been through two 2-9 seasons, NCAA probation, and sitting at home during bowl season despite a 7-5 record, these kinds of losses are getting harder and harder to swallow.
"I've heard a million times, `Keep your head up,' and `That's a great effort,'" an emotional Abney said. "It hurts to keep hearing that.
"One or two or three things like that you can handle, but after a while, I don't know. I guess you have to say to yourself that if this is the worst, it can only get better. I'd be hard-pressed to find other players that have been through situations these seniors have been through. I've got no answers. I think the seniors just want a break."
Discussions about jinxes could go on forever, but Kentucky also can point at several miscues that helped seal its fate.
Jared Lorenzen's pass that was picked off in the fourth quarter was a hot topic after the game and probably will continue to be. But a penalty on a Florida punt late in the third quarter completely changed the course of the game.
The UK defense had come up with yet another stop on the Gators' offense to set up fourth-and-2 at the Florida 25. But the Cats were whistled for having 12 men on the field, giving the Gators an automatic first down and the ball on their own 40.
"To me, the game turned right there," Brooks said.
On the first play following the penalty, Florida quarterback Chris Leak completed a 40-yard pass to Kelvin Kight and Leak threw a 3-yard TD pass to Carlos Perez on the first play of the fourth quarter to cut it to 21-9.
But that was just one of the Cats' many errors. An 87-yard punt return touchdown by Abney in the first quarter that would have given UK a 14-0 lead was wiped out by a hold, and a blown coverage led to a 69-yard reception by Perez that helped Florida kick a first-quarter field goal.
And after Florida had closed to within 21-16 on Leak's second TD pass to Perez, the Cats had the ball on their own 32 with 4:40 left.
After Arliss Beach rushed for 3 yards on first down, the Gators pressured Lorenzen, and freshman linebacker Channing Crowder got his arms around the big left-hander.
Lorenzen, trying to avoid the sack, twirled around and flailed the ball where it was picked off by senior cornerback Johnny Lamar and returned to the UK 1.
"I tried to throw it down to the ground and threw it farther than I wanted to," Lorenzen said. "It's something I wish I had back."
Ran Carthon bulled into the end zone for a 24-21 lead two plays later with 3:15 remaining, sending the Florida section of Commonwealth Stadium into a frenzy and Lorenzen to the sidelines in a funk.
Lorenzen recovered in time to get the Cats in position for a game-tying field goal, but Taylor Begley's 49-yard attempt with 44 seconds remaining was way short.
"All we've been through as a team, you think there's no way, this is the chance we're going to get our big break," Lorenzen said. "And of course, it didn't happen."
Now the Cats must digest another heartbreaker, work their way through a bye next Saturday and get ready for an Oct. 9 Thursday night ESPN game at South Carolina.
"We've got to get this one off our chests," Lorenzen said. "I'm very, very excited about playing South Carolina. I think we are going to come out with such a vengeance and so mad about what happened, that playing on the road just isn't going to bother us. We are going to go down there and absolutely play our hearts out and not let anything like this happen again."