LEXINGTON, Ky. — Somehow, someway, The Streak lives.
Just when it appeared an almost certainty that Kentucky would snap its 30-game losing streak to Florida, the Gators came back from the dead with a 14-point fourth quarter to stun the Wildcats 28-27 before a sellout crowd of 61,000 at Kroger Stadium on Saturday night.
“Well, that was fun,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said. “You could feel it on the sideline that they didn’t have any quit in them.
“That’s a tight locker room. We’re starting to gain some leadership.”
The Gators rallied from a 27-14 deficit behind No. 2 quarterback Luke Del Rio, who replaced the struggling Feleipe Franks midway through the third quarter.
Trailing by 13, the Gators (2-1 overall and 2-0 in the SEC) cut the deficit to 27-21 with 7:58 to play in the game on a five-yard TD run by Brandon Powell out of the wildcat formation. The score was set up by a 50-yard pass from true freshman wide receiver Kadarius Toney to wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland that moved the ball to the UK 30. Toney took the ball on an apparent reverse, pulled up and threw a strike to Cleveland.
Following a three-and-out stop by the Florida defense, Del Rio and the offense went back to work on what would become the game-winning drive.
The winning score came on a 5-yard pass from Del Rio to a wide open Freddie Swain in the right corner of the end zone with 43 seconds remaining.
The Gators converted two fourth downs to keep the drive alive — a fourth-and-three from the 40 and a fourth-and-one from the 21.
On the first fourth down, Del Rio scrambled to his right and at the last second found running back Mark Thompson open over the middle for 10-yard gain to move the ball to the 30.
“That was a veteran play there (by Del Rio),” McElwain said.
A few minutes later, the Gators converted the second fourth down with a seven-yard run by true freshman running back Malik Davis.
Two plays later, Del Rio found Swain uncovered in the end zone for the 5-yard TD pass. Place-kicker Eddy Pineiro added the extra point to give the Gators a 28-27 lead.
Kentucky (3-1 and 1-1) still had enough time to move into position for a possible game-winning field goal, especially after the first play, when an 11-yard pass play coupled with a roughing the quarterback call on defensive end Jabari Zuniga, quickly moved the ball to the UF 49.
The Wildcats appeared to move to the UF 25 moments later, but UK was called for holding. One play later, UK’s chance for victory — a 57-yard field goal attempt by Austin MacGinnis — fell a few yards short, making the improbable UF comeback complete.
“We played unbelievably hard tonight, playing winning football,” UK coach Mark Stoops said. “I really appreciate them, the way they put themselves in a position to win the the football game. Our players laid it on the line.
“There’s quite a few plays in games and you never know which ones are going to decide the game. It’s very disappointing that we didn’t come up with those plays.”
The Wildcats put the Gators on the ropes with a dominant third quarter.
Tied at 14-14 at the half, the Wildcats took command coming out of the locker room. Producing big chunk plays in both the running game and passing game, the Wildcats surged to a 27-13 lead with a 23-yard TD strike from Stephen Johnson to tight end C.J. Conrad and field goals of 42 and 50 yards by MacGinnis, the second coming with 11:33 left in the game.
McElwain then decided to bench Franks, last week’s hero, came after the struggling offense had consecutive three-and-outs to open the second half, with one of those failed third-down plays nearly turning into an interception on a tipped ball.
“Well, we just felt we needed a jump-start a little bit,” McElwain said. “And Feleipe didn’t do anything wrong.”
Even though Del Rio threw an interception in his first possession, his presence seemed to light a fire under an offense that seemed lifeless at the start of the second half.
With Franks the offense did just enough in the first half to make it a 14-14 game.
Toney scored on a 36-yard run out of the wildcat in the first minute of the second quarter to make it a 7-7 game.
After UK took a 14-7 lead on a nine-yard TD pass from Johnson to Garrett Johnson, the Gators responded with a 45-yard TD pass from Franks to Cleveland, who like Swain on the game-winning TD in the fourth quarter, was left uncovered by the Wildcats’ secondary.
Only a week after throwing the game-winning 63-yard TD pass to beat Tennessee on the final play, Franks did not make it very deep into the third quarter before he was pulled.
Franks and the offense seemed to come on in the second quarter, and Franks completed seven of nine passes for 85 yards and the TD for the half.
But once it became apparent that the offense was going nowhere in the second half, McElwain made the game-altering change by going with Del Rio, who would appear to be the Gators’ starting quarterback now. McElwain said after the game that the QB situation would be evaluated.
Del Rio finished the game with nine completions in 14 attempts for 74 yards and a touchdown.
There were many offensive bright spots for the Gators in the fourth quarter. One that sticks out was UF’s ability to run the ball on the nation’s third-ranked rushing defense, especially in the fourth quarter. The Gators ended the night with 186 yards rushing.
The Gators were led by Davis, who gained 93 yards on 21 carries and had some critical runs in the fourth quarter, including the seven-yarder to convert a fourth down on the winning drive.
“I think we hopefully gained a little confidence up front,” McElwain said. “I was proud of the last drive that we didn’t go to thinking we had to throw it every down.”
1. The Gators rallied from 13 points down in the fourth quarter to pull out the victory and extend their winning streak against the Wildcats to 31 games.
2. Former starting quarterback Luke Del Rio came off the bench midway through the third quarter, a move by coach Jim McElwain that sparked what had been a dormant offense.
3. On the final play of the game, UK place-kicker Austin MacGinnis attempted a potential game-winning 56-yard field goal that fell several yards short.
— Robbie Andreu
Who: Vanderbilt vs. Florida
When: Noon Saturday
Where: Steve Spurrier-Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850