It was not as though Saturday night was anything new.
There was the 1988 game when Bill Curry-coached Alabama rallied from 27-10 down to beat UK 31-27. And the Chris Doering catch with three seconds left for Florida’s 24-20 win in 1993. And LSU’s Bluegrass Miracle 33-30 victory in 2002. When Florida was driving in the fourth quarter Saturday night at Kroger Field, you knew the feeling.
As a student in 1980, writing for the Kentucky Kernel, I was standing on the sideline late in a game when Florida receiver Cris Collinsworth made a catch near the boundary. When the official ruled Collinsworth got a foot in bounds, an angry UK coach Fran Curci went to throw his hat on the field, caught himself, and did a somersault right in front of us. Florida kicked a field goal for an 18-16 win.
To be sure, experience doesn’t soften the sting. Up 27-14 with 11:33 to go, Kentucky lost to Florida 28-27. It was UK’s 31st straight loss in the series. The first 30, Florida beat Kentucky. In the 31st, Kentucky beat itself.
Now comes the important part. Knocked flat on the canvas, the Cats must find a way to get back up.
The Saturday before, after beating South Carolina 23-13 in Columbia, UK Coach Mark Stoops was defiant in the postgame press conference, pointing to how his team bounced back after giving up a 68-yard touchdown pass to Carolina’s Deebo Samuel on the game’s first play.
“One play doesn’t define us,” he said.
Now, the coach has to make sure one loss doesn’t define his team’s season. To do that, he has to start with himself.
The sideline chaos problem that plagued this team in 2015 reared its ugly head again Saturday. Most glaring were the two separate and inexcusable instances when UK failed to cover a Florida wide receiver. The Gators scored touchdowns on both.
Two years ago, Vanderbilt tricked UK with the “lazy end” play as the Cats left a receiver uncovered for a touchdown. But that open receiver lined up in front of the Vanderbilt bench. In Saturday’s first case — the 45-yard TD pass to Tyrie Cleveland — the Florida receiver lined up right in front of the Kentucky bench. Hiding in plain sight. Yet by the time the UK coaches realized what was happening, it was too late.
Another self-inflicted wound, almost as damaging, happened in the third quarter. Up 21-14, a 24-yard pass from Lynn Bowden to Sihiem King gave UK a first-and-goal at the Florida five. On the next play, UK was hit with a delay-of-game penalty. First-and-goal from the 5 became first-and-goal at the 10. That can’t happen. A chance to put a boot directly on the throat of the Gators with a two-touchdown lead was squandered instead for a field goal.
Bottom line: Despite the advancements in recruiting, the improved facilities, the strides forward under Stoops, these Cats won’t realize their full potential until they eliminate those unforced errors.
As always, what matters now is what comes next. Eastern Michigan, Saturday’s opponent, is not an SEC team, but it’s not a pushover. Stoops’ team plays Missouri on Oct. 7, then has an open week to catch its breath.
As my statistician friend Corey Price pointed out on Twitter very early Sunday morning, since 1978 Kentucky is 10-108 vs. Florida (2-38), Georgia (5-34) and Tennessee (3-36).
After playing Florida to the wire, and making a case they were the better team, the Cats have two more chances. Tennessee comes to Kroger Field on Oct. 28. Kentucky visits Athens on Nov. 18.
To have a chance in those games, and all eight left on the schedule, the Cats must first put Saturday in the rearview mirror. The fans, who have seen Saturday’s movie so many times before, can’t help but dwell on the details. The team can’t afford to do the same.
It’s a hoary cliché, but it’s true: It’s not how you fall that matters. (Or how many times.) It’s how you get back up.
Eastern Michigan at Kentucky
4 p.m. Saturday (SEC)
Kentucky football 2017