It was the night Kentucky football fans had waited 30 years to experience.
With Florida and its 30-game winning streak over UK in the house, the Wildcats appeared to be the physically superior team. Before a raucous Kroger Field crowd of 62,945, Kentucky controlled play against the Gators deep into the game.
With senior quarterback Stephen Johnson masterfully managing the game — and throwing three touchdown passes — and the UK defense repeatedly throttling Florida on third down, the Wildcats opened at 27-14 lead with only 11:33 left to play.
What happened next is why many think Kentucky football is cursed.
Never miss a local story.
Florida backup quarterback Luke Del Rio came off the bench to rally the Gators to two late touchdowns and their 31st win in a row over Kentucky, 28-27.
Instead of UK snapping its embarrassing three-decades losing skid to Florida, 2017 will join 2003 (blown 21-3 lead in the fourth quarter) and 1993 (lost at the buzzer in spite of intercepting seven passes) among the streak losses that reached into your chest and pulled out your beating heart.
“As you can imagine, a very heartbreaking loss for us and our team,” an ashen Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops said afterward.
In the big picture — and don’t lose sight of this amidst the frustration and fury of Kentucky letting another Florida game get away — it is a tribute to the recruiting prowess of Stoops and his coaching staff that Kentucky appeared to be every bit Florida’s equal in terms of talent.
Across these past 31 years, that has rarely — if ever — been the case.
That said, Kentucky’s coaching let its players down Saturday night.
Amazingly, UK gave up not one but two touchdowns — TWO! — to Florida receivers who were undefended at the snap.
The first one allowed Florida to tie the game at 14 with 3:16 left in the first half.
Coming out of a timeout on a fourth-and-3 from the Kentucky 45, Florida wideout Tyrie Cleveland was standing all by his lonesome in front of the UK bench.
Stoops said the UK coaches noticed Cleveland undefended too late to get a timeout.
“We were looking at the unbalanced formation. I was looking at the set … because we were having some issues, obviously, with that set,” Stoops said. “By the time we realized there was nobody on (Cleveland), we tried to call a timeout and it was too late.”
Inexplicably, the same thing happened on Florida’s game-winning score.
With the Gators down 27-21 and facing third-and-1 from the UK 5, Kentucky got caught trying to change defensive personnel groups late and wound up with 10 men on the field.
The missing Cat was the cornerback who should have been defending wide receiver Freddie Swann.
Swann caught a 5-yard scoring pass from Del Rio.
“We were getting in a big goal-line set and both corners came out and we left them uncovered,” Stoops said. “That’s our fault.”
You wonder if in the history of SEC football, has a team ever before given up two touchdowns in one game to uncovered receivers?
Even with the undefended TDs surrendered, Kentucky might have won anyway if its offensive play calling had stayed aggressive with the lead.
With UK up 24-14, Darius West intercepted a Del Rio pass to give Kentucky the ball at its own 45 with 4:18 left in the third quarter.
The Cats ran it three times and punted.
On Florida’s first possession of the final quarter, the Gators failed on fourth-and-3 from their own 49.
Kentucky ran four plays — three runs and an incomplete pass on third-and-5. Rather than a potentially clinching TD, the Cats settled for a 50-yard Austin MacGinnis field goal and a 27-14 lead.
Hindsight is 20-20, but as well as Johnson was playing at QB (17-of-25 for 196 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions), you wish UK play caller Eddie Gran had gone for the jugular with such favorable field position.
“We had a chance to put them away,” Gran said afterward.
As if the football gods had not tormented Kentucky enough, after Florida scored to take the lead with 43 seconds left, Johnson calmly drove UK into field-goal range.
From the Florida 35 — within MacGinnis’ range — Kentucky ran Benny Snell up the middle for a 10-yard gain.
It was nullified by a holding penalty on UK guard Nick Haynes.
“We were running a zone concept and I pancacked the guy and I got called for holding,” Haynes said.
From viewing the TV replay, I don’t think Haynes was holding but his arm did go around the neck of the Florida defender as the Gator fell to the ground.
Instead of a 42-yard field goal from the 25, MacGinnis had to try from 57 yards.
He came up short.
As did UK against Florida.
For the 31st straight time.
“We were the better team,” Snell said afterward, “and we beat ourselves.”
That he’s right makes this one hurt even more.