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Kentucky 26, Florida 16: Wildcats lay a licking on sloppy Gators

Florida controlled much of the first half of its SEC opener. But mistakes from an erratic Anthony Richardson allowed Kentucky to right its ship and sail straight.

Kentucky v Florida Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images

The Florida Gators, fresh off a see-saw ride of a win over a top-10 Utah team, had Kentucky down 16-7 in the second quarter on Saturday night, having just earned that lead by virtue of a high snap meant to be a punt being booted out of the back of the Wildcats’ own end zone.

That produced a 15-yard penalty, too, one that forced the ‘Cats to kick off from their own 20.

Florida returned the subsequent kick to its 42 — but a holding penalty plopped the Gators back on their own 20.

And three plays later, Kentucky had the ball deep in Florida territory, thanks to Anthony Richardson throwing a short pass that Jordan Wright batted and corraled with one arm.

Three offensive drives later, Kentucky had tied the game.

After another seven snaps, the Wildcats had seized the lead on an easy pick-six off a Richardson rope right to a Kentucky defender.

And after all was said and done in Kentucky’s 26-16 win — which featured zero crossings of the midfield marker by Florida after that 16-7 lead — the Gators had been presented with a fantastic lesson in the evanescence of momentum.

For Richardson, whose scintillating performance against the Utes vaulted him into early Heisman Trophy consideration and surely improved his NFL Draft stock, the momentum on this night was related to the terminal velocity of that hype. While he was not dragged to the ground often, tallying just six carries, he also got a puny four yards on them — and his passes could’ve used a little more obedience of gravity, as he whizzed dozens of bad balls on a night on which he completed just 14 of 35 throws for a mere 143 yards.

Richardson did appear to limp briefly after a play in the first quarter in which a Kentucky defender contacted his legs while trying to rush him in the pocket, and also took a significant tackle from Wright on a draw attempt later in the quarter, but he never came out of the game and did not give much indication of injury or distress as it progressed.

That’s probably a good sign for Florida overall, as the Gators would very probably be in even more dire straits without Richardson than they were with the version of him that came back to Earth in this game. But if there were others on the night for Florida’s offense, they were probably limited to some nice work by Montrell Johnson (seven carries, 62 yards) and Trevor Etienne (nine carries, 46 yards, one two-point conversion catch), and little else.

Florida managed just 12 first downs, and went a woeful 4-for-16 on third downs, and Richardson’s pick-six meant Kentucky’s defense matched the Florida offense’s trips to the end zone.

And all that inefficiency — and some breaks going Kentucky’s way — spoiled what was generally an excellent night for the Gators on defense.

Florida harassed ballyhooed Kentucky QB Will Levis for much of the first half, giving up a touchdown on a deep ball that featured perfect coverage and a ball that probably hit the ground just out of receiver Dane Key’s grasp but was called a touchdown on the field and stood without a conclusive replay. And Trey Dean forcing a Levis throw out of the back of the end zone after Richardson’s first-half pick somehow got called roughing the passer because Dean contacted Levis below the knee while seemingly in the process of trying to make a diving tackle, gifting Kentucky a second shot at first and goal instead of what could have been third and long.

The Wildcats capitalized for a touchdown, but botched the snap on the extra point, leaving the score to be 16-13 in Florida’s favor at halftime after the Gators elected to not aggressively pursue points before the half for the second straight year against Kentucky.

After intermission, it was almost all Wildcats.

Florida forced an immediate three-and-out, but every other Kentucky drive in the second half covered at least 20 yards save for one that began at the Florida 24, and the Gators’ tired defense finally started giving up the gashing runs that boosted the Wildcats’ rushing total from four yards at halftime to a more respectable 70 by game’s end.

Levis also hit enough throws to keep the chains moving in crucial spots, building a tidy 13-for-24 line with 202 passing yards and one touchdown and interception each.

Did one of those throws yield on a ball that bounced through a covered receiver and directly to Chauncey Magwood? Sure. But that was how the bigger breaks seemed to go on this night, with Kentucky’s safety and squandered extra point getting outweighed by Florida’s misfortune and mistakes.

Sloppiness being decisive been a common theme in a series that is blossoming into a rivalry after decades of Florida dominance, whether it has manifested in Freddie Swain staking Kentucky’s heart while uncovered or the astounding number of penalties on Florida a year ago dooming the Gators. On this night, the lion’s share of it belonged to Florida.

And while the Gators’ load gets a little lighter next week after a pair of primetime showdowns, cleaning all — or at least much — of that up is now the first major in-season correction that Billy Napier will have to make at Florida.