LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) — Kentucky ended a 31-game losing skid to Florida last season, but starting a streak of their own against the Gators proved to be a difficult task for the Wildcats in a 29-21 setback to the ninth-ranked Gators Saturday night.
Florida (3-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) scored 19 unanswered — all in the fourth quarter — after its starting quarterback Feleipe Franks went down with an injury in the third frame, putting a damper on Sawyer Smith’s debut as Kentucky’s starting quarterback. The Wildcats (2-1, 0-1) suffered their first loss after wins over Toledo and Eastern Michigan to open the season.
“(It was) obviously very, very difficult loss,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “(I) feel like our team did some really good things. (We) fought our way out of a hole early and a few mistakes early, and came back and really played a good football game for a large portion of the game.”
The Gators had three interceptions, including two in the fourth quarter that aided Florida’s successful comeback bid. Kentucky came up short on fourth-and-inches late in the fourth quarter and kicker Chance Poore missed a 35-yard field goal attempt with 54 seconds remaining and the Gators clinging to a 22-21 lead. Florida put the game away on Josh Hammond’s 76-yard run with 21 seconds left on the ensuing possession.
All eyes were on Smith, and for the most part, he didn’t disappoint in his debut as Kentucky’s starting quarterback. Smith was thrust into the starting job after veteran Terry Wilson went down with a knee injury in a win over Eastern Michigan last week.
Smith threw for 267 yards and a pair of touchdowns and also rushed for another score in a learning curve for the Troy transfer.
“At times (I played well),” Smith said. “ There’s a lot of stuff that personally I can clean up. Hindsight is 20-20. You really can’t do anything about it.”
Stoops thought Smith “did some really good things” and added his progression is “just a matter of getting everybody on the same page.”
“I think there’s a lot to build on there,” he said. “I was proud of the way he went in and played and gave us an opportunity to win this game.”
Kentucky offensive coordinator Eddie Gran shouldered some of the blame for Smith’s performance.
“We didn’t win the game,” he said. “We didn’t put him position good enough to win and that’s always going to be on me. I’ll go back and we’ll find out as a staff collectively (to see what we did wrong) and if we would have won this, it would have been a different deal.”
Although a snap mishap by Smith led to a costly turnover on Kentucky’s first possession, he moved past the miscue and completed his first nine passes, including a 26-yard touchdown strike to Ahmad Wagner, who completed the drive with a bobbling one-handed grab in the end zone.
Smith threw an interception on Kentucky’s first series of the second half but made a tackle that prevented Florida defensive back Shawn Davis from crossing the goal line following a 72-yard scamper in the third quarter. Just as he did following the exchange under center that led to the Gators’ first score, Smith bounced back, this time he fired a 13-yard touchdown pass to Keaton Upshaw — the first touchdown pass of his career — to give the Wildcats a 21-10 advantage.
However, from that point on, it was all Gators.
Overall, the Wildcats were whistled for nine penalties for 79 yards, while starters Yusuf Corker (defensive back) and defensive lineman T.J. Carter were ejected for targeting. Carter’s ejection came in the closing minutes that led to the go-ahead score by the Gators. A pass interference call during the same drive proved to be costly.
“There were some unfortunate plays that we would like back and some calls that I would probably like back, but that’s football,” Kentucky defensive coordinator Brad White said. “That’s going to happen every game.”
Gametracker: Kentucky at Mississippi State, 4 p.m. TV/Radio: SEC Network, UK Radio Network.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.