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Florida 28, Kentucky 27: Gators take 31st consecutive win over Wildcats — barely

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Florida played about as poorly as it can play — and won.

NCAA Football: Florida at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

The Kentucky Wildcats led this game over the Florida Gators time and again, led it by a 27-14 count in the third quarter and into the fourth quarter. They deserved to win, dominated, worked like hell.

But all that wasn’t enough to keep history from repeating itself, as Florida refused to fall in the second half, hanging on for a 28-27 victory decided by a fingernail’s width as much as it was a single point.

The Wildcats and Gators traded touchdowns in the first half — Kentucky going ahead, Florida following behind — en route to a 14-14 tie at halftime. Florida’s came on explosive plays: A Kadarius Toney sweep that got the electric freshman his first house call, and a brilliant play from Feleipe Franks to Tyrie Cleveland on a fourth down that saw Kentucky fail to cover him at the line. Kentucky’s, on the other hand, came on pinpoint passes from Stephen Johnson to the end zone, at the end of drives that seemed destined for points.

And it would be Kentucky continuing that trend in the second half, rolling over Florida in the third quarter for a touchdown and a field goal, and tacking on another field goal early in the fourth quarter.

But Florida wasn’t dead. You have to stake the vampire’s heart.

After inserting Luke Del Rio in the third quarter to replace an ineffective Feleipe Franks and immediately watching him throw an interception, the Gators turned to Toney again, for a rainbowed wide receiver pass to Cleveland to set them up deep in Kentucky territory. From there, Florida did nothing but run the ball, eventually punching in its first rushing touchdown since last fall on a Brandon Powell sweep around end.

And Kentucky couldn’t score. And Florida got the ball back.

The Gators would do even more with little more than nothing on their final offensive drive in the fourth quarter. Malik Davis was fed the ball over and over, and Del Rio made a few crucial throws, and Powell wriggled out of seeming doom for a first down.

Finally, Florida faced third and one from the Kentucky 5 — and the Wildcats left another man open, which Del Rio saw and exploited for a five-yard, six-point touchdown to Freddie Swain. After an extra point, Florida had its first lead of the night with just under a minute to play.

They would keep it, despite a game attempt to let it slip on the final drive of the night. Jabari Zuniga was flagged for an extraordinarily dumb roughing the passer penalty to start it off, and the Gators gave up a fourth down conversion on a deep pass midway through it.

But a holding call — merited, if untimely — washed out what seemed like a run into good position for a field goal kick, and Kentucky’s Austin MacGinnis was forced to try a 56-yarder rather than a 40-yard try.

He gave it his all — and his kick came up several yards short.

And so did Kentucky, for the 31st consecutive year.

Florida did not play excellent football in this game. It did not even play good football, really. But it also won.

And no matter how it feels, a win is a win.