30 years after last beating Florida in football, Kentucky vowed to make 2017 the year they finally ended the streak.
There were parades throughout the day in Lexington. Kentucky made premeditated plans to storm the field after they beat Florida. Someone started a gofundme page in advance to pay for what’s known as the “celebration fee,” aka the SEC’s auto-fine to any school who does so. They even brought their basketball team to the game, playing them all with front row seats as if asking them to initiate the celebration by being the first to hop onto the field.
Then a kid named Luke Del Rio came off the bench and promptly canceled those plans by handing the Wildcats their most devastating loss in a 31 year streak filled with them.
Del Rio, the Gators’ starting QB for much of 2016, was usurped on the depth chart by redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks and Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire this past offseason. But with Franks struggling against the Cats in the second half, Jim McElwain apparently decided he needed to make a change- and went with the two time transfer Del Rio over Zaire.
The result? A fourth quarter comeback for the ages, featuring back to back touchdown drives that led to a 28-27 win in a game that Florida trailed 27-14 with eleven minutes to go and appeared down for the count.
Kentucky scored first on a quick out route from Stephen Johnson to Blake Bone, but Florida quickly responded with a 36 yard touchdown run from Kadarius Toney. Garrett Johnson gave the Cats the lead right back on a fade route, and the Gators answered right back on a 45 yard touchdown pass from Franks to a wide open Tyrie Cleveland. The Cats totally forgot to account for Cleveland on the play, with nobody lining up across him and no safety even in the vicinity, but as it turned out, that was mere foreshadowing of what was to come later.
For awhile after that point, though, that touchdown to Cleveland looked to be an anomaly as Kentucky appeared headed for that oh-so-elusive win over Florida. Even including Austin MacGinnis’s end-of-half field goal that boinged off the upright in this statement, Kentucky dominated the game most of the way after that. With the game tied at 14, Johnson found CJ Conrad over the middle for a 23 yard score, and MacGinnis followed that with a pair of field goals.
Meanwhile, Franks was struggling. On one occasion, he missed multiple open receivers by not going through his progressions and getting himself sacked, and twice he threw to the wrong guy and ended up with incomplete passes while his primary targets were streaking open downfield. So McElwain inserted Del Rio- who immediately got picked off by throwing late down the middle. That’s a no-no at any level. And his next drive didn’t go much better, as Kentucky broke up his fourth down pass to Brandon Powell.
To his credit, Del Rio bounced back. He led the Gators to back to back touchdowns on their final two drives of the game, the first of which came on a Wildcat run by Powell. But Del Rio, Kentucky coach Mark Stoops and his Cats defense will forever be remembered for the latter one.
On a third and one from the six, Gator receiver Freddie Swain lined up on the right side of the field. Unfortunately for Kentucky, nobody lined up on the other side of him. The result was a derivative of the jump pass Tim Tebow made so famous a decade ago: Del Rio took the snap, took one step back, leaped into the air and lobbed a rainbow to Swain in the middle of the right side of the end zone. Swain then caught the easiest pass he’ll ever see in his life, and with Eddy Pineiro’s ensuing extra point, the Gators took the lead with :43 showing on the clock.
But Kentucky had one last shot. A roughing the passer penalty on Florida on the first play of the Cats’ final drive put the ball in Gator territory. The Florida defense then forced a 4th and 11, but Kentucky picked that up too to reach the Gators’ 34 yard line. And when Benny Snell broke off a 15 yard run to reach the red zone, the Wildcats seemed well within MacGinnis’s range.
Then the flag came out. Holding on Kentucky. Big run negated, and now the Cats were pushed an additional 15 yards backwards. That forced MacGinnis to try to win the game from 57, and his kick fell just a few yards short.
Without the holding penalty, MacGinnis’s kick clears the crossbar and Kentucky beats Florida. Without Luke Del Rio’s insertion into the game, the Gators more likely than not never find an offensive rhythm and Kentucky beats Florida. Without either of two complete busts on defense that lead to wide open touchdowns, Florida probably doesn’t take the lead late- unless those same two plays resulted in touchdowns in another, more normal way- and Kentucky beats Florida.
Basically, if any of a number of big plays that went Florida’s way went Kentucky’s way, the Gators would be talking about a devastating loss rather than an exhilarating and borderline unbelievable comeback win, and the fourth longest winning streak over another opponent in college football history would be over.
But despite all that went wrong for Florida, all that went right for Kentucky and all that was planned to happen in Lexington in the ensuing minutes, hours and days, the Gators got the win. And while they certainly need to get back to the drawing board, they can at the very least be proud of that.