Losing to Kentucky shows Florida Gators they have a long way to go | David Whitley

David Whitley
Gator Sports
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Reality bites.

After a week of great expectations, the Florida football team found that out Saturday night. It was a reality-check game against Kentucky, and reality is Billy Napier’s start-up program could not hang with the once-woeful Wildcats.

Things have changed in the Commonwealth, though it’s taken Mark Stoops years to build Kentucky into a football force. Most Florida fans believed the Gators were on the fast track after last week’s win over No. 8 Utah.

Not so fast, my friends.

“In football, you always got to tell the truth,” Napier said. “We didn’t earn the right to win. We made too many mistakes.”

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The biggest were an interception that gave Kentucky possession at Florida’s 7-yard line. And an interception returned 65 yards for a score. Perhaps it’s time to cool the Anthony-Richardson-For-Heisman talk.

He was 14-for-35 passing and had four yards rushing.

“I played terrible,” Richardson said. “I didn’t do anything that would have helped my team.”

That disappointed most of the 89,993 fans at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, though it shouldn’t have come as a shock. More disheartening was how the Gators got manhandled as the game wore on.

Kentucky's Will Levis wins the quarterback battle 

Kentucky Wildcats quarterback Will Levis (7) throws against the Gators at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Sept. 10, 2022.

It was a Stoops Special. Gnarly defense, grind-it-out offense and a few clutch plays by Will Levis. His QB duel with Richardson was enough for ESPN to send draft guru Todd McShay to Gainesville for the broadcast.

McShay called Richardson, “the most intriguing player in the draft class, whether it’s 2023 or 2024 ... He is an absolute physical phenom.”

McShay was almost as effusive over Levis, who wore a microphone during pregame warmup and dispensed Heisman-caliber encouragement to teammates.

“No nerves!” he yelled.

“I watched ‘Scarface’ last night,” Levis told an assistant coach. “Got me jacked!”

What QB wouldn’t be inspired after watching Tony Montana rise from Cuban refugee to drug kingpin? The climactic scene, where Montana breaks out a machine gun, yells “Say hello to my little friend!” and mows down about 97 would-be assassins is an adrenalin tour de force.

If not Tony Montana, viewers were hopeful to at least see the QBs do a pretty imitation of Joe. It quickly became obvious the defenses controlled the script.

We also shouldn’t have been surprised that AR didn’t have a Heisman night. For all the accolades, he was starting his third college game. There were communication breakdowns with receivers, and Richardson’s arm did an imitation of Tony Montana’s little friend.

Passes flew like stray bullets all over Florida Field. High, low and with extreme velocity. Levis was sharper, though Florida’s pass rush made his life miserable. Justus Boone knocked his helmet off with a sack that really did leave a scar on Levis’ face.

His struggles couldn’t compare to Richardson’s. His first big mistake came when linebacker Jordan Wright snatched one of AR’s fastballs with one hand and returned it 20 yards to the Florida 7.

The Wildcats pushed it in on a one-yard sneak by Levis. It gave them a grand total of two rushing yards in the first half, but that was not a sign of things to come.

The Gators’ defense wore down in the second half and Kentucky’s got stronger. The killer came on UF’s second drive, when Richardson threw an out pattern to Nay’Quan Wright.

Problem was, Wright had broken deep. The miscommunication meant the pass sailed into the loving arms of cornerback Keidron Smith, who returned it 65 yards for a score.

That made it 23-16 with 3:25 left in third quarter. There was plenty of time left, but the Gators never came close to scoring.

Two drives ended with UF failing to convert fourth downs. With his 61st victory at Kentucky, Stoops passed Bear Bryant as the school’s all-time winningest coach.

Napier will probably get that many wins in Gainesville before he’s done. But Saturday night showed the program is still in the baby-step phase, and there’s a long way to go.

— David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @DavidEWhitley.

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