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Game day: Kentucky vs. Florida
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It takes a strong stomach to be a Kentucky Wildcats football fan.
A sellout Kroger Field crowd of 63,076 was treated to Example No. 1,097 of that Saturday night at the hands of a familiar tormentor.
On a steamy night, Kentucky entered the fourth quarter leading the No. 9 Florida Gators 21-10. For the third straight season against UF, UK spent much of the game looking like the superior team.
Yet instead of the first Wildcats victory over the Gators in Lexington since 1986 and the first back-to-back UK wins over UF since 1976 and ‘77, Kentucky went home with its 32nd loss to Florida in the past 33 meetings.
Two years ago here, a backup Florida quarterback, Luke Del Rio, rallied the Gators from 27-14 down in the final quarter to a 28-27 win.
This year, the script was the same. Second-string Gators QB Kyle Trask replaced an injured Feleipe Franks and broke Kentucky hearts again by engineering three fourth-quarter TD drives that produced a 29-21 UF win.
“Very, very difficult loss,” UK Coach Mark Stoops said afterward. “In a game, there’s an awful lot of plays and you never know which play is going to decide the outcome.”
For Stoops — and Kentucky fans — four plays from a fourth quarter that went awry are long going to haunt.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, Kentucky (2-1, 0-1 SEC) went for it on fourth-and-1 from the Florida 38.
During the three Kentucky bowl seasons that preceded this year, this was “Benny time.” Alas, Benny Snell is now on the roster of the Pittsburgh Steelers, not closing games for the Cats.
Running from the Wildcat formation, Snell’s replacement, A.J. Rose was snuffed for no gain. Afterward, the 6-foot-1, 210-pound Rose said a UK blocker was unable to get to Florida linebacker David Reese II.
“It was a 1-on-1 situation. I should have gotten it. I put that on me,” Rose said. “It will never happen again. If we would have got that, that would have changed the game.”
Instead, Trask needed only six plays to drive Florida (3-0, 1-0 SEC) to a TD that cut the Kentucky lead to 21-16. His two-point conversion pass failed.
UK was still clinging to that 21-16 advantage inside the final six minutes when the Wildcats defense appeared to make a massive play. Florida’s Trask dropped back to pass on second-and-10 from the UF 49, only to be sacked by Kentucky’s Jordan Wright.
However, Wildcats defensive end T.J. Carter also got to Trask as the QB was starting to go down. As Carter hit Trask, their helmets met.
Carter was called for a personal foul for targeting and ejected from the game.
Rather than third-and-15 at its own 44, Florida had first-and-10 at the UK 36. Trask needed only three plays from there to put the Gators in the end zone for a 22-21 lead, running the final 4 yards on a QB draw. Trask’s two-point conversion run failed.
Afterward, a frustrated Stoops lamented the impact the call had on the outcome.
“What am I supposed to tell my guys?” Stoops asked. “My guys are fighting, clawing, scrambling, trying to get (Trask) down, giving everything they’ve got — and you get that called.”
Still, Kentucky had a chance to win. UK quarterback Sawyer Smith — who acquitted himself well in his first start (23-of-35 passing for 267 yards and two touchdowns though he also threw three interceptions and lost a fumble) in place of the injured Terry Wilson — marched UK back toward the go-ahead score.
With 1:02 left in the game, Kentucky had a third-and-2 at the Florida 18. UK running back Kavosiey Smoke got the call, but the dynamic redshirt freshman was stopped inches short of the first down.
“Game comes down to inches,” Stoops said. “We were short on the fourth down when we were up 11 and run it there on third down (with Smoke) and end up 6 inches short.”
The fourth play that will haunt Kentucky immediately followed when redshirt freshman place-kicker Chance Poore missed a 35-yard field goal with 58 seconds left that would have put UK ahead 24-22.
For the fifth time in the Stoops era, UK played Florida to within a touchdown, but the Wildcats still have only last year’s 27-16 victory in Gainesville to show for it.
In the big picture, there remains much to be encouraged about over what Stoops is doing with Kentucky football.
Smith needs to eliminate turnovers, but he also looked like a QB who can lead Kentucky to success this year. “I think this team,” Smith said, “can win a lot of games.”
In the past, Florida’s athletic superiority over Kentucky seemed the difference between cheetahs and plow mules.
Over the past few years, UK has looked very much equal in terms of athleticism to Florida.
Still, for seasoned Kentucky fans, games like Saturday night’s rip the psychic scabs off old wounds from a past littered with gutting Wildcats losses.
Even in a period of UK football ascendance, Saturday was a reminder that being a Kentucky fan requires a gut made of steel.