John Clay

As Bill Belichick would say, it’s on to Mississippi State for Kentucky football

Oh come on now, we veteran followers of Kentucky football are all too used to the sort of fourth-quarter comeback Florida summoned Saturday night at Kroger Field to rudely snatch a joyful victory from the host Wildcats.

UK’s players are not so battle-weary, however. Especially these players. This is a young Kentucky football team with inexperienced players in key spots who have never had to pick their chins up off the floor after a 21-10 fourth quarter lead slipped into a 29-21 loss to the ninth-ranked Gators and prepare for a pair of important SEC road games.

“We’re not into moral victories,” Drake Jackson, UK’s junior center, said afterward.

Never mind that for three glorious quarters — for arguably the third straight year — Kentucky looked like the better football team. Offensively, new starting quarterback Sawyer Smith was on time and on target to an array of receivers as the UK offensive line held Florida’s supposed sack-pack at bay. Defensively, Mark Stoops’ troops had stoned the visitors’ running game, forcing UF quarterback Feleipe Franks to frantically hunt receivers.

Total yards after three quarters: Kentucky 326, Florida 216.

Alas, it’s a four-quarter game. We too know that all too well. An injured Franks gave way to backup hero Kyle Trask. The green Kentucky secondary, already a huge question mark, buckled under the weight of losing safety Yusuf Corker (first-quarter ejection for targeting) and replacement Taj Dodson (injury). The 11-point cushion shrank to 21-16. Then Florida led 22-21. And when the Gators’ Josh Hammond sprinted 76 yards to a touchdown on a jet sweep with 33 seconds left — “We were in an all-out blitz there,” said UK defensive coordinator Brad White — true darkness fell.

Consider it a learning experience, starting with Chance Poore, who missed a 35-yard field goal wide right with 54 seconds left that would have given Kentucky a 24-22 lead. It was the first time the redshirt freshman had found himself in that position, at least on the college level, before a sold-out home crowd on national television. Baptism by fire. “You’re going to miss some,” Stoops said.

And yes, Smith played extensively at Troy last season before arriving in Lexington as a grad transfer. On campus for just two months, the Florida native was making his first start against SEC competition, much less top-10 competition. First half, Smith was 10-for-13 passing with a touchdown and an interception. Second half, he was 13-for-22 with a touchdown but two interceptions — the final one a Hail Mary at game’s end.

Ironically, Kentucky really lost the game precisely where it wanted to be. After preaching all week that it must avoid third-and-long situations, the Cats failed to convert on crucial short-yardage situations. They ended up 1-for-4 on third- or fourth-and-1 yard to go. The most notables came on the final play of the third quarter and first play for the fourth. Third-and-1 from the Florida 38, running back A.J. Rose was stopped for no gain. After the teams changed ends, it was rinse and repeat. A conversion and UK’s lead could have easily been extended to 28-10. Instead, six plays later, Florida scored and a comeback had officially commenced.

“This is a good football team,” a defiant Smith said afterward. “We’re going to win a lot of football games.”

There are plenty of reasons to believe that. To win those games, however, Stoops’ troops must shake off Saturday — “This loss makes me sick,” former UK coach Rich Brooks tweeted — and play the next game(s). First comes a trip to Starkville, no doubt stinging from Mississippi State’s 31-24 home loss to Kansas State on Saturday. After that, it’s on to South Carolina where Will Muschamp’s Gamecocks are already 1-2.

For this Kentucky football team, it’s not about what has happened in the past, even the most recent. It’s what lies ahead.

Next game

Kentucky at Mississippi State

4 p.m. Saturday (SEC Network)

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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