Sidelines with John Clay

Three take-aways from Kentucky’s heartbreaking (again) loss to Florida

Three take-aways from Kentucky’s 28-27 loss to Florida on Saturday night, UK’s 31st consecutive loss to the Gators:

1. I don’t believe in curses, but . . .

An uncovered receiver. Not once, but twice. Once is bad enough, but twice? And both scored touchdowns on the play. A delay-of-game penalty that turned a first-and-goal at the five to a first-and-goal at the 10, which led to a field goal instead of a touchdown. A missed 48-yard field goal by your reliable kicker. And then, of course, the holding penalty on the final drive.

I don’t believe in jinxes. I don’t believe in curses. But you have to wonder, after 31 straight Kentucky losses to Florida, whether there are some other invisible powers at work in this annual series between SEC East members, a series in which UK has not left the field a victor since 1986.

You could make the case that Kentucky was the better team Saturday. After a 14-14 tie at the half, the Cats outscored the visitors 10-0 in the third quarter. They took a 27-14 lead with 11:33 left. And yet, again, they couldn’t hold on, a victim of their own unforced errors.

Error No. 1: First half, Kentucky up 14-7, the Cats somehow managed to leave wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland open in plain sight right in front of the UK bench. Concerned with Florida’s unbalanced set, the UK coaches somehow missed the fact that Cleveland, who had caught the winning 63-yard touchdown pass on the final play against Tennessee, had only open air in front of him on fourth-and-three from the Kentucky 45-yard line.

Cleveland waved at quarterback Feleipe Franks, who threw him what turned into a 45-yard TD and a 14-14 tie with 3:16 left before halftime.

Then with less than a minute to go, it happened again. Florida had driven 53 yards in 14 plays to face a third-and-one at the UK five-yard line. This time, Florida wide receiver Freddie Swain was lined up uncovered on the far side of the field. Quarterback Luke Del Rio found him easily for what turned out to be the winning touchdown.

Afterward, UK coach Mark Stoops blamed the plays on “breakdowns in communications.” Kentucky fans might also blame them as part of a curse.

Either way, in a series in which you had lost 30 straight, you can’t afford to give up easy scores.

2. Missed opportunities for the offense

Yes, Kentucky scored 27 points, and if you take away the lapses on defense, that total might have been enough to snap the streak. Still, you can't help but think Eddie Gran’s offense left points on the field.

“You’d like to not kick field goals,” the offensive coordinator said afterward.

Up 21-14 in the third quarter, UK had a first-and-goal at the five-yard line. Then came a delay of game penalty, pushing it back to first-and-goal from the 10. That’s a whole different situation.

Next play, Benny Snell picked up a yard to the nine. Then Stephen Johnson hit Tavin Richardson with a bubble screen for three yards, setting up third-and-goal from the six when a chronic problem reared its ugly head again.

A bad shotgun snap -- check that, a horrible shotgun snap -- sailed over the head of Johnson in what turned out to be an 18-yard loss. Austin MacGinnis made the 42-yard field goal, but UK had a chance to extend the lead to two touchdowns and instead settled for 24-14.

“We had a chance to put them away and we didn’t do it,” Gran said.

After the defense stopped Florida on a fourth-down play near midfield, the offense picked up just one first down and settled for a 50-yard MacGinnis field goal for a 27-14 lead.

Then there was the holding call on Nick Haynes on the final drive. Taking over with just 43 seconds remaining, UK moved from its own 25 to the Florida 35 when Snell burst up the middle for a 10-yard gain that would have set up a chip-shot field goal for MacGinnis.

Alas, Haynes was called for holding -- that curse thing? -- moving the ball back to the 45-yard line. Two snaps later, MacGinnis’ 57-yard attempt proved beyond his range.

Key stat: So good on third down last Saturday at South Carolina, where UK converted nine-of-16, including six of its first eight, in the 23-13 win, the Cats were just one of 10 on third down against Florida.

3. A tired and heartbroken defense -- plus what’s next?

Florida’s two best drives of the night were its final two. The Gators marched 80 yards in seven plays, with wide receiver Brandon Powell taking a shotgun snap six yards for a TD with 7:58 left to cut the Kentucky lead to 27-21.

After a three-and-out by the UK offense, the Gators took over at their own 42 with 6:31 left and covered the distance in 13 plays with the aforementioned Del Rio-to-Swain pass for the TD and a 28-27 lead.

If that score lacked the drama of the Danny Wuerrfel-to-Chris Doering pass with three seconds left that gave Florida a stunning 24-20 win, it resembled 2003 when the Gators rallied from a 21-3 deficit entering the final quarter to win 24-21.

“Well, that was fun,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said. “Just can’t tell you how much I really like our football team, our guys. They keep hanging in there and figuring out a way to play the game.”

On Thursday, Stoops pointed out that the data from 2016 showed that “if you rush the ball for one more yard than an opponent in SEC games last year, you had an 80 percent chance of winning the game. If you outrush them by 50 yards, it’s 88 percent.”

Florida ended up with 186 rushing yards on 36 attempts to Kentucky’s 120 yards on 32 attempts. Florida rushed for 101 in the first half and 85 in the second. The Gators gained 70 yards on the ground in the fourth quarter alone.

So where does UK go from here? Can it pick itself up after such a devastating loss? That’s the question for Monday as Eastern Michigan comes to Kroger Field next Saturday. Afterward, UK’s players put on a brave face, but rebounding won’t be easy.

Kentucky-Florida final stats

Category

Kentucky

Florida

Final score

27

28

First downs

21

20

Total offense

340

395

Plays

59

63

Yards per play

5.8

6.3

Rushing offense

120

186

Rushing attempts

32

36

Yards per rush

3.8

5.2

Passing yards

220

209

Comp-Attempts-Int

18-27-0

17-27-1

Third down conversions

5-of-14

1-of-10

Third down percentage

35.7

10.0

Turnovers

0

1

Fumbles lost

0

0

Net punting

35.6

34.8

Sacks

1-2

4-17

Field goals-attempts

2-4

0-0

Penalties-yards

7-55

8-72

KENTUCKY’S 31 STRAIGHT LOSSES TO FLORIDA

Date

Site

UK

UF

Dec

11/14/87

Gainesville

14

27

L

11/12/88

Lexington

19

24

L

11/18/89

Gainesville

28

38

L

11/17/90

Lexington

15

47

L

11/16/91

Gainesville

26

35

L

9/12/92

Gainesville

19

35

L

9/11/93

Lexington

20

24

L

9/10/94

Gainesville

7

73

L

9/9/95

Lexington

7

42

L

9/28/96

Gainesville

0

65

L

9/27/97

Lexington

28

55

L

9/26/98

Gainesville

35

51

L

9/25/99

Lexington

10

38

L

9/23/00

Gainesville

31

59

L

9/22/01

Lexington

10

44

L

9/28/02

Gainesville

34

41

L

9/27/03

Lexington

21

24

L

9/25/04

Gainesville

3

20

L

9/24/05

Lexington

28

49

L

9/23/06

Gainesville

7

26

L

10/20/07

Lexington

37

45

L

10/25/08

Gainesville

5

63

L

9/26/09

Lexington

7

41

L

9/25/10

Gainesville

14

48

L

9/24/11

Lexington

10

48

L

9/22/12

Gainesville

0

38

L

9/28/13

Lexington

7

24

L

9/13/14

Gainesville

30

36

L (3OT)

9/19/15

Lexington

9

14

L

9/10/16

Gainesville

7

45

L

9/23/17

Lexington

27

28

L

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