Date story was published||| Sunday, September 28, 1997
The bonfire had burned all week, blowing air into Kentucky's blue-and-whiteballoon until finally, at about 3:30 p.m. yesterday, the craft took flight ina loud swell of enthusiasm and hope.
Thirteen seconds later, however, a razor-sharp pin appeared. There wasFlorida defensive end Willie Rodgers, rolling around on the ground, claiminghe had intercepted Tim Couch's first pass. Never mind that television replaysshowed the football had hit the ground first.
Nine short seconds after that, the balloon went pop. There was the Gators'Fred Taylor dancing into the end zone on a 16-yard run. There was the blueaircraft suddenly headed toward a fiery crash.
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And it did crash, make no mistake. The defending national champion andtop-ranked Florida Gators placed a 55-28 tattoo on upstart Kentucky before thesecond-largest crowd in Commonwealth Stadium history and a near-nationaltelevision audience yesterday.
Sophomore quarterback Doug Johnson threw for 286 yards and five touchdowns.Taylor, the senior tailback, rushed for 126 yards and two scores. Widereceiver Jacquez Green caught 10 passes for 139 yards and three touchdowns asSteve Spurrier's wrecking crew captured their 24th straight SEC victory and13th consecutive league road win.
Kentucky fell to 2-2 overall and 0-2 in the conference, while the Gatorsimproved to 4-0 overall, and 2-0 in the league.
"They are truly one of the better teams I've ever laid eyes on," said UKCoach Hal Mumme. "Athletically they are as good at every position as I've everseen. My hat's off to them. It's an honor to be in the same conference withthem."
And yet, Kentucky actually survived the impact. Sort of. After a typical28-0 first-quarter Florida frenzy that began with Spurrier's club scoring twotouchdowns in the game's first five minutes, the Cats actually played thefour-time defending conference champs even, turning what appeared early to bea fourth straight UF-UK blowout into, well, at least an entertaining rout.
"I thought our guys were trying awfully hard," Mumme said. "We talked tothem all week about overcoming the onslaught of their athleticism and tryingto survive it. That's where we went wrong. We just didn't. We couldn't get alot of things positive going early."
They did later on, however. Despite completing just five of his first 18passes, Cat quarterback Tim Couch wound up completing 33 of 59 throws for 348yards and two scores. Despite facing Florida's pressure cornerback coverage,wide receiver Craig Yeast caught 10 passes for 125 yards. Despite gaining justnine yards on his first six carries, running back Anthony White finished with79 yards on 14 attempts.
Despite the Gators' four-touchdown head start, Mumme kept to attack mode,pulling off a second-quarter fake punt (when down 28-0) and ordering fouronside kicks.
"How I can spend all the time telling them to attack if I don't do itmyself," the coach said afterward.
"Hal believes a little like me," Spurrier said. "If you are going to getbeat, it doesn't matter how bad it is. He likes to keep their offense on thefield the whole game and I don't blame them."
Kentucky's defense spent most of the first quarter on the field, with itsback to the wall. Five times Florida had the football in the first 15 minutes.Four of those possessions started inside UK territory - at the 16, the 49, the35 and the 25.
"It doesn't matter, our job is to stop them whether it's from the six-inchline or from 99 yards away," said defensive coordinator Mike Major. "And wedidn't do our job."
Still, after the rare, week-long Cat-Gator hype - "We came in thinking wehad a real chance to win," said strong safety Tremayne Martin - the openingcould not have been much worse.
Game's first play, Couch tried a short pass that was tipped by a Gatordefender, then hit the ground, only to be scooped up by Rodgers, a senior fromMiami. The officials looked at each other in confusion. The Gators lobbied forthe interception.
"I saw it hit the ground," Yeast said. "Then I was talking to (Fred) Wearyand he said, 'We've got the ball.' I said, 'No, it hit the ground.' I turnedaround and they had it."
And scored with it, Taylor doing the honors just 22 seconds into the game.That began a string of four Florida first-quarter scores, three coming onJohnson-to-Green hookups.
"We thought we could get a couple of scores early and instead they got acouple of scores early," said offensive guard John Schlarman. "But we kept inthere fighting."
And gambling. Down 28-0 in the second quarter, ball on his own 14-yardline, Mumme called a fake punt and walk-on running back A.J. Simon hit walk-onwide receiver James Whalen with a 21-yard pass for a first down. That sparkedthe Cats' first TD - White ending a 10-play drive with a 14-yard scoring run.
Even when the Gators exploded back out to a 49-7 lead with 2:48 in thethird quarter, Kentucky scored on its final three possessions, Couch throwingto roommate Kevin Coleman for the final two scores.
"We had some bad breaks in the beginning of the game and got too farbehind," Yeast said. "But I thought we came back and did a lot of good thingsat the end. It was good to see the score 55-28 and people still in thestands."
"The team wasn't down in the locker room (after the game)," Mumme said. "Ithink when they look at the video and see some of the plays they made againstwhat I consider the best team in the nation, it'll be a positive thing."