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Three takeaways from Kentucky football’s loss to Florida

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Game day: Kentucky vs. Florida

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Three takeaways from Kentucky football’s tough 29-21 loss to the Florida Gators on Saturday night:

1. Hello darkness, my old friend

Even after breaking the bonds of that 31-game losing streak to Florida last year, Kentucky is making these closes losses to the Gators too much of a habit. There was the 36-30 overtime loss at The Swamp in 2014, Mark Stoops’ second season as coach. There was the 28-27 loss at Kroger Field in 2017. And now you can add Saturday night to the list.

The Cats led 21-10 at the end of the three quarters. In his first UK start and his first start against SEC competition, quarterback Sawyer Smith looked more than competent, showing off a strong arm, hitting receivers in stride. The Kentucky defense, despite the loss of safety Yusuf Corker early to a targeting call, had held the Gators high-powered offense in check for three quarters.

Then Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks suffered a leg injury — he was carted off with an air cast on his right leg — and was replaced backup Kyle Trask. For whatever reason, the Gators offense clicked. More decisive than Franks, Trask started picking apart the depleted UK secondary on the way to a stunning comeback in which the visitors outscored the Cats 19-0 over the final 12:41 of the game.

Eventually, the Corker loss plus an injury to his replacement, Taj Dodson, was too much to overcome. Trask, who threw five passes in mop-up duty during Florida’s 45-0 win over UT Martin last week, completed nine of 13 passes for 126 yards in leading the rally. His 20-yard pass to Van Jefferson helped set up Florida’s first fourth-quarter score. His 30-yard strike to tight end Kyle Pitts set up the go-ahead touchdown with 4:11 remaining.

We knew coming in that Kentucky’s secondary was a question mark in this game, not to mention this season. It took awhile for Corker’s loss — he’s UK’s best safety — to hurt the home team, but when it did, it did.

2. What can be done about those frustrating targeting calls?

Corker wasn’t the only Wildcat to be ejected for targeting. His disqualification came just 7:39 into the game. Meanwhile, defensive tackle T.J. Carter was ejected around the 5-minute to go mark after it appeared he had sacked Trask for a 5-yard loss on a second-and-10 from the Gators’ 49-yard line. Instead, Carter was called for the personal foul, which wiped out the sack, gave Florida a first down at the UK 36 and tossed Carter from the game. Instead of third-and-15, it was first-and-10. Trask hit Pitts for that 30-yard gain. And two player later, Trask scored from 4 yards out for the Florida lead.

Afterward, an obviously frustrated Mark Stoops seemed close to blowing his stack when discussing the calls, especially the one on Carter, but managed to hold it in. He understands the need for safety and as he said last week, the coaches are pleased there are more eyes, including those in the league office, are looking at each targeting call.

Still, what is a player supposed to do on that particular play. It appeared Carter lowered his head to make the tackle just as Trask was lowering his head. It was a football play. Instead of targeting calls in the secondary, where the defender uses his helmet to hit a receiver or ball carrier, the targeting rule has over time expanded to plays in which in the past were unavoidable football plays.

It just so happened Kentucky came out on the wrong end of a couple of those plays Saturday. The Corker ejection hurt the Cats in a position where they could ill afford to lose a key player. The Carter ejection hurt the Cats at a time in the game when they could ill afford to be hurt.

3. Now Kentucky must bounce back and go on the road

There were plenty of good things on Saturday. There was Smith’s play. Yes, he threw three interceptions. But considering the grad transfer from Troy was pressed into service just two months after joining the program, he performed admirably. The offensive line’s pass protection was excellent. Florida came into the game with 15 sacks. It left with just one more. UK’s run defense was terrific. Before Josh Hammond’s 76-yard TD run with Kentucky trying to execute an all-out blitz with 33 seconds remaining, Florida has rushed for just 64 yards on 40 carries.

Remember, Florida entered the game ranked ninth in the nation. The Gators were an 8.5-point favorite. And for three quarters, for the second straight year — maybe even the third — you could make the argument that Kentucky was the much better team.

That doesn’t guarantee a victory, as we witnessed yet again. This Kentucky team is still a young team with a lot of inexperienced players in key positions. Learning how to finish he deal is part of the growing process. As bad as Saturday night’s loss had to string, it might just all be part of the development. The task now is to pick up the chins and prep for back-to-back conference road games, first at Mississippi State and then South Carolina. Both lost Saturday.

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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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