There it was, a small yellow strip on the green turf.
Benny Snell had just gotten the 10 yards that looked like they would seal the victory for Kentucky and as he was walking back toward the huddle feeling confident that a short kick would end a 30-year old streak, the running back saw the flag.
By then senior offensive lineman Nick Haynes was asking officials what the call was and who it was on.
“I was surprised,” he said of the flag that was thrown well after Snell had gotten through the hole. “I didn’t think it was a hold, but I guess it was. That’s all I can say about that really.”
The call was on Haynes and that set the Cats back 10 yards and out of kicker Austin MacGinnis’ range.
Haynes felt his stomach in his throat knowing that Kentucky was going to fall to No. 20 Florida 28-27 on Saturday night.
“It’s heartbreaking,” he said. “A BS call gets made and that’s just how the game ended. It sucks but we’ve got to put it behind us and fight next week.”
Kentucky’s coaches didn’t see the hold. They vowed to study the film to see what went wrong. Replays showed the Florida lineman and Haynes going back and forth before the lineman fell down after Snell ran through. Haynes appeared to fall on top of him.
“I didn’t see it,” Coach Mark Stoops said. “I mean that’s, obviously, a heart-breaking penalty at that point.”
Quarterback Stephen Johnson said his heart hurt for the senior lineman.
“I know Nick is a very good offensive lineman,” Johnson said. “He’s one of our best, actually, when it comes to his grade. So for them to say that he held, it’s kind of odd. We have to go back and watch the film, see if it was, and then just move on from there.”
Eddie Gran took matters into his own arms, grabbing Haynes by the neck afterward.
“Told him I love him, told him I made 100 different calls today that weren’t good,” Kentucky’s offensive coordinator said, adding that he told Haynes: “This is not on you. There’s a lot of plays out there that we had a chance to make.”
Having so much support in the locker room with the broken heart made it easier for Haynes.
“That’s the team: We all get behind whoever needs it and at that point, I needed it because that’s just something I didn’t see coming at all,” Haynes said. “I thought I played a pretty clean game other than the little sack I gave up.”
Miscues and miscommunication
There was no full explanation for the two Florida touchdowns on uncovered wide receivers. That explanation is likely to come next week as Kentucky pieces together what Stoops called a communication issue.
On the first play, in which quarterback Feleipe Franks found a wide open Tyrie Cleveland for a 45-yard touchdown pass out of a Gators timeout, Stoops said the coaches were looking at the unbalanced formation.
“I was looking at the set and I was fixed on our fits, because we were having some issues obviously with that set,” Stoops explained. “And we were looking at exactly the formation in there, the bunch set, and by the time we realized that there was nobody on him, I tried to call a timeout and it was too late.”
The second one proved much more costly because it gave the Gators the 28-27 lead with 43 seconds to play.
Out of another Florida timeout, new quarterback Luke Del Rio spied a wide open Freddie Swain for a 5-yard touchdown pass.
Kentucky got caught making a late substitution on that one, Stoops said.
“We were getting into a big goal line set and both corners came out and we left them uncovered,” Stoops said. “That’s our fault, we tried to change personnel groups too late, we should have lived with the call that we had and tried to sub for bigger people.
“And that can’t happen in that situation. Our players can’t hear, it’s loud and they can’t hear and the communication is very, as you guys know, with the crowd noise with offense and I know it’s like that on defense, it’s the defense at home. And we have got to communicate much better. We have got to do a better job of coaching them.”
The Kentucky defense was especially frustrated with how the Gators scored each time in the loss.
“Every touchdown they had was a missed assignment,” weakside linebacker Eli Brown said. “They didn’t earn one touchdown they had.
“One guy was wide open. The other guy was wide open. The long run — one guy jumped a gap and busted open. They didn’t deserve none of those touchdowns they had. So, it’s upsetting.”
The breakdowns can’t continue to happen, linebacker Josh Allen said.
“Communication wasn’t great in the fourth quarter,” Allen added. “We’ve got to learn from our mistakes and get better.”
‘We’re not letting up’
The pain of the loss was still fresh on the faces of each Kentucky player in the locker room after the game.
“Those guys, you could have heard a pin drop in there because they’re deflated because of the amount of work and how hard they worked, how much they wanted to win that game,” Stoops said.
But each of the players vowed that this team still has plenty of fight left in it with a long season still ahead, starting next weekend against Eastern Michigan.
“It’s a hard one to bounce back from really quickly, but we have a bunch of seniors here and we’ll be back ready to go as quick as tomorrow,” Haynes vowed. “We’re hungry. We’re a hungry team and we’ll be back better than ever.”
In this case, a short memory is key.
Eli Brown said: “It’s time to just move on and play the next game.”
This team will move on from this game after it learns from the tape on Sunday and Monday, Allen said.
“Tomorrow comes we don’t focus on yesterday,” he said. “We have to get better and better every day. … We’re not letting up. We’re not feeling sorry for nobody.”
Running back Sihiem King had five carries for 64 yards, a season high for the junior, who led the Cats in rushing.
“Had a good game,” Gran said. “Getting more production, getting a lot more confident.”
• The crowd of 62,965 at Kroger Field was the first sellout since 2015. In a tweet after the game, UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart thanked the fans. “The atmosphere was incredible tonight,” he said. “Thank you. I can promise you that support will help fuel our team as they get back to work this week.”
• Austin MacGinnis made two field goals in the game, breaking the school record for made field goals in a career with 58. The previous record was 57 by Joey Worley.
• Darius West had his first career interception in the third quarter and returned it 21 yards. He had eight tackles in the loss. Fellow safety Mike Edwards led the UK defense with 11 tackles.
Herald-Leader staff writer Ben Roberts contributed to this report.