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Florida 34, Kentucky 10: Gators stay the course to keep Wildcats at bay

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Florida’s stars shined and its defense stepped up after a slow start in dispatching Kentucky.

Kentucky vs Florida Photo by Courtney Culbreath/Collegiate Images/Getty Images

28 minutes of game clock into Florida’s meeting with Kentucky on Saturday, Gators head coach Dan Mullen was chewing out defensive coordinator Todd Grantham in advance of a field goal to put the Wildcats up, 10-7, shortly before halftime.

But at the break, thanks to some special teams legerdemain and special play from Kadarius Toney, it was 14-10 in the Gators’ favor. And before long in the second half, it was 21-10, thanks largely to Kyle Trask and Kyle Pitts.

As has happened all but once when things look gloomy for these Gators, their rescuers zoomed in to make plays and win the day.

Florida’s 34-10 victory over Kentucky goes down as perhaps Trask’s least impressive game of the season from a statistical standpoint — the Heisman front-runner was 21-for-27 with 256 yards and three touchdowns — but showcased the same steely play he’s given the Gators all year. Trask found Pitts up a seam for a 56-yard catch-and run score midway through the first quarter for Florida’s only offensive touchdown of the first half, then stayed cool despite offensive struggles and connected with Pitts twice more in the third quarter, extending Florida’s lead.

And while Trask’s numbers were less gaudy than his greatest ones, he made sure his best target’s were eye-popping. Pitts had five catches for 99 yards and showed virtually no drop-off from his play earlier in the year, catching touchdowns on a slant and a zig in the red zone to go with his galloped-for score and give him a share of the national lead for receiving touchdowns as of game’s end.

Still, those numbers largely came on either side of a long stretch of the first half that Kentucky controlled. The Wildcats had a long opening drive stalled by multiple Florida sacks, but responded to the Gators’ 7-0 lead by turning field position bestowed by a Justin Shorter fumble into a game-tying touchdown, then drove nearly the full length of the field for a field goal, much to the consternation of Mullen, who was caught upbraiding Grantham near the end of that seven-minute procession.

Whether it was the angry words or something else, Florida’s defense responded in the second half, giving up just 15 yards in the third quarter and stopping the first four Kentucky drives of the half.

The prime candidate for “something else” as a motivating factor would have to be Toney’s electrifying 50-yard punt return for a touchdown, the first special teams score of his Florida career. The Gators ran a two-returner setup that kept both Toney and Xzavier Henderson back deep; Henderson served as a decoy, allowing Toney to field the punt unencumbered and juke two Gamecocks en route to the end zone.

And though Florida’s running game never fully got in gear — Dameon Pierce made nice plays and picked up 67 of Florida’s 104 yards on the ground, most of them on a 38-yard run late in the day — the Gators still scored 34 or more points for a ninth consecutive game, even though their record run of eight straight 35-point affairs is no more.

If this seems like nitpicking, it might be.

But Florida didn’t put together a masterpiece on this day. And it didn’t have to.