Kentucky’s final five possessions in a 29-21 loss to Florida would fit into a solid horror script: turnover on downs, punt, interception, missed field goal, interception.
That UK began the fourth quarter with a 21-10 lead made its inability to capitalize down the stretch all the more distressing. The Cats were oh-so close to building their first win streak against the Gators in more than 40 years, only to come up short.
On one hand, losing by a single-digit margin to the No. 9 team in America could be interpreted as a sign of progress. UK in its seven previous games against top-10 teams under Mark Stoops lost each time by a double-digit score and by an average of 24.9 points; its closest defeats were by 14 points, to No. 7 Louisville (27-13 in 2013) and No. 1 Mississippi State (45-31 in 2014).
On the other hand …
“First thing’s first, we’re not a moral victories team anymore,” said junior Drake Jackson, who made his 23rd consecutive start at center. “We can’t settle for that that. … We dominated in a lot of different areas statistically, but we can’t count that for a moral win.
“We’re here to win games with any team in the SEC, any team in the country. So first thing’s first, we’ve gotta understand that.”
Jackson was part of an offensive line that surrendered a single sack and three tackles for loss to a Florida defensive front that through two games had generated 15 sacks and 19 tackles for loss. Sawyer Smith was far from perfect — he was 23 of 35 for 267 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions — but he played well enough in place of injured starter Terry Wilson to get UK in position to win.
“It doesn’t matter if this was my first start or my 100th start,” Smith said. “… There were a lot of things we did tonight that were really good, but there’s a lot of stuff that we did that, personally, I can clean up and the game might not be the same. We might be in here really happy right now. Hindsight’s 20/20, you can’t really do anything about it.”
Two of Smith’s interceptions — the first the result of a miscommunication with Lynn Bowden, the second on a Hail Mary attempt to end the game — were in the fourth quarter. They sandwiched UK’s penultimate drive, which ended in the missed field goal, a 35-yard try by Chance Poore.
Jackson found Poore sitting by himself in the locker room for a moment when the game ended.
“I said, ‘Look Chance, everybody’s gonna blame you for missing the kick, but I whiffed on a fourth-and-1,” Jackson said. “There’s other situations, third-and-short, the offensive line didn’t get it done. This is a team game, and I want him to understand that.”
The failed conversion on fourth-and-1 — on Florida’s 38 — kicked off the fourth quarter, and was immediately followed up by a six-play, 62-yard Florida touchdown drive orchestrated by Gators backup quarterback Kyle Trask, who completed his first six passes. He finished 9-for-13 for 126 yards against a struggling secondary; through three games UK has surrendered 803 passing yards on 66 completions, an average of 12.1 yards per connection.
A first-quarter targeting call resulted in the ejection of Yusuf Corker, the Wildcats’ starter at free safety. His backup, true freshman Taj Dodson, was helped off the field by UK training staff in the fourth quarter. It forced UK to play some guys out of their regular spots and to dig deeper into its bench.
“As far as where some the guys were playing and some of the simulated pressures and different things we had, yes, it definitely handcuffed (defensive coordinator) Brad (White),” Stoops said.
Florida Coach Dan Mullen — who improved to 9-2 all-time against the Wildcats as a head coach — described UK as “an excellent football team” during his postgame remarks and lauded Stoops’ development of the program.
“Hard-pressed to tell me there’s 25 better teams in the country than Kentucky,” Mullen said. “They should be a ranked team.”
Should be, could have, what if. That’s language used by programs searching for moral victories, and the manner in which UK conducted itself after losing to Florida suggests those are not in its sights as it moves onto its next foe.
“In the past, you compete with a top-10 team and you’re like, ‘Well, we played really well against a really good team,’” Jackson said. “That’s not what the mindset was after the game. The mindset was, ‘We should have won that game.’ … We’re gonna do our best to make sure that nobody is satisfied with almost beating Florida. We can’t have that.”