The party started too soon.
Kentucky went up by 10 points against No. 20 Florida and the losing streak to the Gators seemed destined to end at 30.
The kickoff return team started a familiar routine, jamming to Waka Flocka Flame’s “Grove St. Party.”
But the Gators started their epic party crash, marching down the field 80 yards to score on a 6-yard run by Brandon Powell to cut the lead to six points.
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Then for the second time in the game, an uncovered receiver, this time Freddie Swain, capped Florida’s longest drive of the game (13 plays, 58 yards) with a 6-yard touchdown catch in the right corner of the end zone in front of thousands of hungry Gators fans.
“Dang,” linebacker Josh Allen remembered thinking as Swain caught the pass from Luke Del Rio. “It hurt just seeing him wide open. It hurt. I pleaed for him to drop it, but he didn’t. He made a good play.”
The play sealed Kentucky’s seemingly endless fate, 28-27, in front of a sellout crowd of 62,945 at Kroger Field on Saturday night.
The win streak stretched to 31 straight for No. 20 Florida — still the nation’s longest — with a new heap of heartbreak to add to the narrative.
“Very heartbreaking loss for us and our team,” Coach Mark Stoops said afterward. “I love our team’s commitment and work ethic and desire. They played unbelievably hard tonight. And played winning football.”
It looked like Kentucky might escape with the win in the final seconds when a Benny Snell run appeared to get the Cats in field goal range with 10 seconds left, but a holding call on offensive lineman Nick Haynes negated the run.
“I just thought when he broke the run, I thought we won the game,” offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said. “Great drive, Stephen Johnson did an unbelievable job. I thought our kids protected unbelievably on that series. … They executed to perfection. It’s unfortunate.”
UK got one last chance with less than five seconds to go, but senior Austin MacGinnis’ 57-yard field goal fell short.
“It was heartbreaking,” Snell said. “Like I said just before, I knew we were the better team on all sides of the ball, including special teams. We came up short and beat ourselves and that’s just that.”
Florida had 395 yards to 340 for the Cats, including 186 to 120 on the ground. The Gators (2-1, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) struggled on third down, but connected on three of their four fourth-down tries in the victory.
“That was fun,” Florida Coach Jim McElwain said of the win, the Gators’ second straight in crazy fashion at the end. “They keep hanging in there and figuring out a way to win the game.”
All tied up at the half, 14-14, Kentucky’s defense forced a punt on the Gators’ first series and then UK went ahead on a 23-yard pass from Stephen Johnson to C.J. Conrad.
The UK tight end rumbled through two Florida defenders to the end zone to put the Cats up 21-14.
Some trickery — which included a snap out of the wildcat package to Sihiem King, which he handed to Stephen Johnson, who pitched it to Lynn Bowden who threw a 24-yard pass to King — got UK within a whisper of the end zone.
But a collection of bad snaps, including one for minus-18 yards, meant the Cats had to settle for a 42-yard MacGinnis field goal to extend the lead 24-14. MacGinnis added another from 50 yards to put UK up 27-14.
Then the Cats collapse began.
“We had a chance to put them away and we didn’t do it,” Gran said.
A dejected Stoops said there were probably 12 plays in the game that changed the game.
“It’s very disappointing that we didn’t come up with those plays,” Stoops said. “The breakdown in communication defensively on the two plays are really a sore spot because they stick out and it takes away from the great passion and energy that the team, that our team played with. We played winning football.”
The coach accepted responsibility for those and for letting down the first sellout crowd at home since 2015.
“It was a great atmosphere and I would like to see it like that every week and I realize it’s up to us,” Stoops said. “I imagine if we play like that and the players leave it on the field and play with that kind of energy and desire and passion, then we’ll have a great fan base like that every week.”
Both teams opened the game with empty trips.
Kentucky (3-1, 1-1) got going first with 5:06 to play in the first quarter when Stephen Johnson found Blake Bone for a 14-yard touchdown pass to the left corner of the end zone.
It was the senior wide out’s first touchdown in 25 games played, dating back to the season opener in 2015 against Louisiana-Lafayette.
Johnson finished the game completing 17 of 25 pass attempts for 196 yards and three touchdowns. Sihiem King led the ground attack with 64 yards on five carries. Snell added 59 yards on 14 carries.
Early in the second quarter, Florida evened it up on a 36-yard run by freshman Kadarius Toney on a direct snap. It was the longest run allowed by Kentucky this season. The previous high was 11 yards.
Two perfect special teams plays — a punt downed at the 1-yard line by Charles Moushey and then a 52-yard punt return by Charles Walker — helped set up a pretty perfect play for the Cats to make it 14-7.
That’s when Johnson found another Johnson, Garrett, on a 9-yard pass to the right corner of the end zone.
On fourth-and-3 out of timeout, Kentucky’s defense left wide receiver Cleveland completely uncovered Tyrie Cleveland for a 45-yard touchdown pass that evened it up 14-14 with 3:16 to go before the half.
With 2:37 to go, Florida linebacker Vorean Joseph was ejected for targeting after a head-to-head hit on UK’s quarterback, who was sliding after a run. That coupled with another foul gave the Cats the ball at the Gators’ 42-yard line.
But Kentucky couldn’t capitalize.
Back-to-back sacks stalled that drive and then Austin MacGinnis’ 48-yard field goal pinged off the right upright to end the drive.
Things got worse for Kentucky when star cornerback Derrick Baity was injured on the final play of the half and had to be gingerly walked off the field with the teams tied up, 14-14.
In the third quarter, UK announced that Baity had suffered a head injury and was being evaluated. He didn’t return. Stoops offered no update in postgame interviews.
MacGinnis’ field goals helped him set the new school record for career field goals made and got him a few points closer to UK’s all-time scoring record.
Eastern Michigan at Kentucky
4 p.m. Saturday (SEC)