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Florida vs. Kentucky: The Best and Worst of the Gators’ 45-7 win

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It was a really good day in The Swamp.

Kentucky v Florida Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

It’s a whole lot easier to say things about a win than a loss.

Virtually everything went right for the Florida Gators on Saturday against the Kentucky Wildcats, whom they defeated for the 30th straight year by a 45-7 count that actually seems deceptively close based on score line alone.

This was a romp, with the Gators surviving a shaky start on offense and getting all facets of the Jim McElwain efficiency machine working at near full capacity. And there’s so much to praise about the way they played.

Best: Surviving the Times

Florida could very easily have been down 7-0 in this game after its first offensive possession, as Luke Del Rio was hit from behind and Kentucky returned the subsequent fumble for what was originally called a touchdown. An unusually keen replay review crew overturned that call — and correctly called two other somewhat difficult plays over the course of the game — and allowed Florida to continue that first drive.

Florida didn’t score on that drive, either, with Eddy Piñeiro pushing a 42-yard field goal wide left for his first miss as a Gator, and turned the ball over to Kentucky as nabobs nattered on Twitter.

The next two drives: Florida forcing a three-and-out thanks to Alex Anzalone being everywhere, and Florida driving 84 yards in 15 plays and 7:29 (and converting four third downs on the way) for the first touchdown of the day. If there was any doubt about which team was better after that first drive, the Gators extinguished it by the end of the third.

Worst, But For The Best: Not-So-Steady Eddy

I think it was probably a good thing that Piñeiro missed kicks in this game, when they were almost entirely immaterial. He didn’t miss his 42-yarder by much, but he absolutely shanked that last field goal, and that bad of a miss probably shakes the confidence of even the most headstrong kicker. McElwain agreed with the idea that it will ultimately be good for Piñeiro to have missed these kicks now, so he can be prepared for the unwanted possibility of missing more in the future.

But, well: The kid also rocketed a 54-yarder through the uprights that would have been good from at least 60 between the two misses. It’s not as if he got Monstar’d or something.

Best: A Borne Identity

Florida did not seem to me like a team that knew its strengths on offense last week, as it hammered away against UMass with an ineffective line, and dinked and dunked in a passing game that seemed more unintentionally limited than deliberately, er, deliberate.

This was not the case on Saturday. After yielding plenty of pressure on its first drive, Florida inserted freshman Jawaan Taylor on the line, and was able to pound away at the Wildcats from basically that point on. Del Rio getting hit on the first drive was practically the only meaningful pressure he dealt with all day, and Florida churned out runs of 16, 13, nine, and seven yards on that drive, with that line paving the way for 244 rushing yards on 50 carries, 105 of them on Lamical Perine’s 17 totes.

Florida ran well and set up the pass, passed well because it set up the run, and then returned to the run to wear out a Kentucky defense that has been on the field for 179 snaps this year, third nationally to up-tempo Texas Tech and SMU among teams that have played just two games. By game’s end, Florida had its largest tally of total offense — 564 yards — against an SEC team since 2001, when Steve Spurrier’s last band of Gators gained at least that many on five SEC foes.

And yet: McElwain told reporters in his postgame presser that Florida might have been less creative in its play-calling on this day than it was against UMass, something I bet the tape will bear out. This performance was borne of the Gators deciding on their identity as a run-first, then-pass-when-possible team predicated on balance and consistency, and executing accordingly.

And that’s what makes some of the offensive success so wonderfully promising: It’s not as if Florida hit scads of big plays. The Gators’ second-longest play of the day was ruled an incomplete pass on review; they had just one run of more than 16 yards, and one catch of more than 30. This was just drilling dominance, boring in both the sense that it was predictable and that it was piercing and unstoppable.

Best: A Swamping Defense

Florida could hardly have had a better first three quarters on defense than it did against Kentucky. Quincy Wilson and Teez Tabor snagged interceptions that were equally brilliant in wildly different ways, and Marcus Maye plucked a third from the sky on a throw by Drew Barker that was as panicked as any you’ll ever see.

Barker ran scared for approximately every second he was on the field, completing two passes for 10 yards to Wildcats, three to Gators, and five to the ground. He was either sacked or intercepted on seven of his eight possessions. Stephen Johnson, inserted to save Barker from himself and the ravenous Florida front, took exactly two plays to fumble as he escaped from a Florida lineman and ran into a Kentucky one.

Johnson would later throw a 45-yard pass to Jeff Badet that set up the only Kentucky touchdown of the day — on a massive coverage bust by Nick Washington — and Kentucky did get a 25-yard run from Badet on a well-called reverse and a 25-yarder from Boom Williams at the end of the first half, but those three plays accounted for almost two thirds of the Wildcats’ total offense on the day. And Florida made both 25-yarders meaningless almost immediately, with Tabor making his theft two plays after the first and two instances of Barker running for his life following the latter.

I still think Florida’s defense can be better, because I don’t think we’ve seen either Jarrad Davis or Caleb Brantley at his best yet this year, and because the talented young players behind all the starters — Kylan Johnson, most notably, on this Saturday, but also David Reese, Chauncey Gardner, and Jeawon Taylor — are seemingly good enough to spell their superiors with little drop-off. But Florida — albeit against woefully overmatched competition — is second nationally in total defense, tied for sixth in scoring defense, and sixth in yards per play allowed.

If that continues against better teams, it will be a really, really good sign. And if this defense can do that and more, we may be looking at an all-time unit.

Best: All Day Callaway

If it felt like Callaway had a relatively quiet game, outside of his 78-yard touchdown catch from Del Rio, it’s because he did: Take away that play, and he only had four catches for 51 yards.

But Callaway’s five catches for 121 yards gave him a career high in receiving yards, and three straight games of at least five catches for 70 yards, dating back to the Citrus Bowl.

That might not seem like much — and, really, it probably wouldn’t be for most other programs. But Florida hasn’t had a pass-catcher do that since the final three games of Aaron Hernandez’s collegiate career, and hasn’t had a receiver do it since Percy Harvin did it in 2007.

It has been vanishingly rare, in other words, for a Gator to have both big-play potential and be reliably open like Callaway is. And Callaway is doing this despite being quite clearly Florida’s best option as a wideout, with his help coming largely in the form of Brandon Powell drawing only what attention he can as a slot receiver.

Florida knows it can extract big plays from Callaway; I nicknamed him “Big Play” Callaway last year while it seemed like he made one every week. Now, as he’s become a dependable target for Del Rio, “All Day” seems like a fitting sobriquet, too.

Best: PEE RHEIN

Much like how parts of 2015 were spent chuckling and eye-rolling at announcers who couldn’t find the second R in Jordan Cronkrite’s surname, I think watching Florida broadcasts in 2016 will be done while laughing at failures to pronounce Lamical Perine’s name.

It’s la-MICHAEL PEE-ryne in the media guide, for the record, and I think it’s phonetic as long as you recognize “-mical” as “Michael” — but Verne Lundquist tried both “puh-REENE” and the correct pronunciation on Saturday, before becoming so utterly bored with the game that he started talking about a film festival in Steamboat Springs (where he lives) and Todd Blackledge coaching Austin Appleby as a high school basketball player. (I made neither of those things up.)

Perine might well force people to learn his name if he has more games like the one he had on Saturday, though. His 105 yards on the ground were the most by a Florida freshman running back since Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps — Treon Harris and Trey Burton each had 100-yard games as freshmen; neither player was a running back in the sense Perine is — and his catch-and-run touchdown was astonishingly effortless, as he hauled in a too-high pass from Del Rio and turned upfield to scythe past defenders.

Perine had just six carries in the first half, and just two before the game was 24-0; he was largely facing a weary Kentucky defense, and that must be factored into his evaluation. But he also gained 66 yards on six consecutive carries behind a Florida line consisting almost entirely of little-used backups, and I rate many of those linemen as poor at best.

And judging by an amateurish eye test, Perine appears to be no worse than Florida’s second-best back behind Jordan Scarlett. He’s quicker than Mark Thompson, but plenty burly in his own right; seems to know instinctively where to run, something that Thompson struggles with; and is simply healthier than Cronkrite, whom I don’t think we have seen at full strength this season.

Perine isn’t Emmitt Smith, despite wearing the Gators legend’s No. 22. But neither is he likely to be a freshman flash in the pan, I think, especially if coaches trust him enough to give him 17 carries one week after he fumbled on his only one. And if Florida has four running backs who all seem to have strengths that will get them on the field, it will at least have a fresher rotation than it has had in many years this fall.

Worst: Kentucky

Over the last 30 years, Florida has defeated Kentucky and defeated Kentucky and defeated Kentucky and defeated Kentucky and defeated Kentucky and defeated Kentucky and defeated Kentucky and defeated Kentucky and defeated Kentucky and defeated Kentucky and defeated Kentucky and defeated Kentucky and defeated Kentucky and defeated Kentucky and defeated Kentucky and defeated Kentucky and defeated Kentucky and defeated Kentucky and defeated Kentucky and defeated Kentucky and defeated Kentucky and defeated Kentucky and defeated Kentucky and defeated Kentucky and defeated Kentucky and defeated Kentucky and defeated Kentucky and defeated Kentucky and defeated Kentucky and defeated Kentucky.

There is not much that surprises about a Florida win over Kentucky.

But an unfortunate surprise about these Wildcats was that, to my eye, they appear to be even worse than the last three teams Kentucky put on the field against Florida, ones that succumbed to a fantastic game plan, only lost in overtime, and kept it close, respectively.

These Wildcats couldn’t block, couldn’t pass save for a blown coverage, could only run on a gimmick play and when Boom Williams wriggled to daylight, couldn’t defend the run or the pass except for on a tip drill, missed their only field goal, and were outgained by more than 400 yards. They were bad, worse than one would hope for as a Kentucky fan, worse than they probably should be in the fourth year of a reputedly decent head coach’s tenure.

But maybe that’s just the story of Kentucky football, a program so far removed from contention in even the recently moribund SEC East that it’s practically staring up at the dirt. Kentucky hasn’t gone .500 in SEC play since 2006. It didn’t go better than .500 in SEC play with Tim Couch, the No. 1 pick in the 1999 NFL Draft. It hasn’t had a winning SEC record since 1977 — when it went undefeated in SEC play, but was on NCAA probation.

To put that in terms Kentucky fans might understand: Adolph Rupp was alive then.

There are years in which Kentucky has, perhaps, been a measuring stick for Florida. 2014 might have been one of them; 2007 probably was. This does not seem to have been that year, except in the sense that Florida took a stick, measured a piñata, and whacked it around in The Swamp for three and a half hours on Saturday.

While there’s plenty to be happy about after Saturday’s game, remember this: It was still just Kentucky.

Again, still trying out formats for detailed postgame posts for the first three games of this season. This one’s borrowed from Brandon Stroud’s fantastic Best and Worst of... columns about wrestling. Let me know if you like it!