Gators make belated Thanksgiving feast out of Wildcats

Gators
Kyle Trask didn’t have his best day, but he didn’t need to. His teammates did more than enough to guide the Gators past Kentucky.

Florida was missing key pieces on both sides of the ball a week ago in a sluggish 38-17 win over Vanderbilt. The Gators got them both back today, and the result was fairly similar: Florida struggled for a half against a historically inferior divisional opponent, turned up the heat in the second half and ran away with it.

And though Dan Mullen was rightfully irritated with the way the game looked at times, his team quietly took another step closer to making the noise at the national level his team sets out to make every season.

Kyle Pitts guided the offense with five catches for 99 yards, James Houston IV paced the defense with eight tackles and 2.5 TFL, and Florida overcame a slow start to pound Kentucky, 34-10. The win served as a nice bit of payback against a Kentucky team that had ended a 31 game winning streak in the series the last time it came to the Swamp, in a 27-16 upset in 2018. It also draws the Gators within a single victory of clinching the SEC East for the first time since 2016.

As for Heisman Trophy contender Kyle Trask? After a meteoric rise to stardom this season, he was more than happy to be a backstory on this day— which included Vanderbilt’s Sarah Fuller becoming the first woman to rack up a statistic in a Power Five college football game on a kickoff and Buffalo’s Jaret Patterson tying an NCAA record with eight rushing touchdowns— and simply let his teammates do the work.

He did start off the day with a bang. Following a perfectly executed fake punt by Dameon Pierce on the first drive, Trask found his tight end Pitts over the middle for a first down. But Pitts had more than that in mind. The Mackey Award favorite then broke toward the sideline and left his defender in the dust for a 56 yard touchdown strike that sent the limited crowd into a frenzy.

After that, though, both teams kind of settled into a lazy game that got a bit hairy for a little while.

Florida’s offense then stalled, scoring a combined zero points on its next three drives that ended with one fumble from Justin Shorter and two punts. Kentucky cashed in Shorter’s fumble for a quick TD lob from Terry Wilson to Keaton Upshaw to knot the game at seven early in the second quarter. The tension mounted when Kentucky ate Florida’s lunch again on the next drive, chewing up 87 yards of real estate before the Gator defense finally woke up and stiffened in the red zone to force a field goal. That drive so aggravated Mullen that TV cameras caught him flipping out on defensive coordinator Todd Grantham as Kentucky lined up for the go-ahead field goal.

Mullen must have said the magic words, because it preceded an immediate tenor shift in the game. First, Jacob Finn airdropped a punt at the Wildcats’ one yard line. Kentucky went nowhere, and had to punt, which they did… right to Kadarius Toney. Thanks to some clever maneuvering and a convincing fake punt track and catch by teammate Xzavier Henderson, Toney had more than enough room to operate. He caught the punt, made one cut and was off to the races for a 50 yard punt return touchdown to retake the lead. That gave Florida a 14-10 lead at the intermission— after which they turned this one into a laugher.

To be fair, Kentucky helped.

Thanks to three consecutive penalties by Kentucky (back to back facemasks and a pass interference), Trask and Florida happily and effortlessly walked deep into Kentucky territory right off the bat in the third quarter. There, Trask found Pitts on the quick slant on the “O” of the blue “Florida” end zone font for their second scoring hookup of the day. Florida had to settle for a field goal on its next drive, but then Wilson got careless and lofted one right into the hands of Mohamoud Diabate, who gratefully returned the ball down to the 13 yard line. Three plays later, Pitts appeared to be running a post route, but then slammed on the brakes and doubled back toward the pylon— where Trask found him for perhaps the easiest of his three touchdown tosses on the day to make it 31-10.

Florida could have made it so much worse, but to the surprise of many, Mullen elected to call off the dogs in the fourth quarter. Mullen ordered three straight running plays on a first down in the red zone on one fourth quarter drive rather than pad Kyle Trask’s Heisman stats, and then ordered the offense to bleed all 40 seconds off the play clock before every play on their next drive— which ended at the one yard line and with zeroes across the clock. Thus, Trask’s day concluded with a stat line of 21-27 for 256 yards and three touchdowns. Not bad, certainly, but also nowhere near the frenetic pace he’d set for himself so far this year.

Meanwhile, the defense was playing its best half of football all season. Not only did the Gators pitch a shutout in the third and fourth quarters, but the Wildcats couldn’t even generate a single first down until the final drive of the game (when the backups were in) and mustered a paltry 41 yards in those final 30 minutes. Their first five drives of the second half ended thusly: three and out, interception by Diabate, three and out, four and out/turnover on downs, and interception by Shawn Davis. After the Wildcats finally did pick up a first down, Tre’Vez Johnson snuffed that drive out too with the Gators’ third interception of the game.

Mullen made it clear in his postgame comments that he wasn’t thrilled with the offensive performance sans a few big plays. But the reality is that Florida is now one win away from the SEC Championship, and though they hopefully won’t need it, they’ll have two shots to get it: by virtue of beating Georgia and owning the head to head tiebreaker, the Gators have to just beat one of Tennessee or LSU, both of which they figure to be massive favorites against. For all that this team has to work on, there’s a very clear— and sizable— reward lying ahead on the horizon for them if they make those improvements.

Also the reality: don’t look now, but Florida is a mere three wins away from its first ever College Football Playoff, two of which would come against those Tennessee and LSU teams the Gators should be major favorites to beat. And for a team that’s been labeled as second fiddle to Georgia in the SEC for the better past of the last four seasons, that’s quite a nice place to be.

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