Gators come alive to overcome upset-minded Kentucky
Just like a week ago, the Florida Gators re-learned the lesson that there are no easy wins in the SEC.
That message was pounded home again Saturday by Kentucky, which was coming off a 60-point loss to Alabama, but very much in control of the game for most of the first half Saturday.
The Gators found themselves trailing to that same UK team late in the first half.
But No. 5 UF, ignited by a 50-yard punt return for a touchdown by Kadarius Toney with only seconds remaining in the half, carried that late momentum into the second half and pulled away from the Wildcats 34-10 in The Swamp to move to 7-1 on the season.
Here are five takeaways from the game:
Special teams come up huge
Heading into Saturday’s game, the UF special teams had been pretty quiet this season, failing to come up with any game-changing plays. Much different story in this game.
The special teams changed the complexion of the game with two huge plays in the first half — one early, one late.
The first came when it appeared UF had opened with a three-and-out on offense. The Gators, facing a fourth-and-two from their own 25, faked a punt with the snap going to the up-back, Dameon Pierce, who ran for 15 yards and a first down.
Two plays later, quarterback Kyle Trask threw a 56-yard TD pass to tight end Kyle Pitts.
"You practice fake punts, you practice them," UF coach Dan Mullen said. "You get in a situation where you're going to call it and then you've got to go execute it. And our guys did that very well."
The second game-changer came in the closing seconds of the first half, when Toney returned a punt 50 yards for a touchdown with just 42 seconds remaining to give the Gators a 14-10 lead in a half that had been dominated by a ball-control UK offense.
It was a trick return. UF sent two return men deep on opposite sides of the field. After the punt was launched, true freshman wide receiver Xzavier Henderson acted like he was going to catch the ball and the UK cover team converged on him.
Then Toney made the catch about 20 yards away and had a wide-open path to the end zone.
"We go through the different punt returns (in practice)," Mullen said. "I think we executed that well."
Welcome back, Kyle Pitts
The Florida offense rolled right along without injured star tight end Kyle Pitts in the previous two weeks. But it was evident Saturday what kind of impact he does have on the offense.
He caught three touchdown passes, including a 56-yarder early in the game, and was his usual match-up nightmare for opposing defensive backs. He led the Gators in receiving with five catches for 99 yards.
"It's great (having him back)," Trask said. "Kyle is a phenomenal athlete and tight end. He causes a lot of mismatches for the defense, causes a lot of chaos in the secondary. It's great for us as an offense.
"We obviously go way back. We were backups a couple years ago. So chemistry’s always been building. And also I think we’ve been doing a great job of getting him in good situations to where the defense has to try really hard to figure out how they’re guarding him. I just think we did a solid job executing today.”
Defense adjusts, dominates
Florida’s defense could not get off the field in a first half that saw the Kentucky offense pound the ball on the ground and melt away the majority of the time on the clock.
The Gators trailed 10-7 late in the half. One of the reasons is the UF offense rarely had the ball, running just 21 plays from scrimmage.
Adjustments were made at the half because the Gators came out and dominated the second half, shutting down the run and shutting out the Wildcats.
"Our coaches, they're real good defensive coaches and we have defensive guys who take a lot of pride in what they're doing," Mullen said. "We came out and didn't play very well to start the game. Still only gave up 10 points.
"The players and coaches understand we've got to make some adjustment, make sure we adjust to what (UK) is doing. Todd (Grantham) went through that at halftime. The game is so much about adjustments. Our guys made a great adjustment and were really motivated in the second half."
Dan Mullen’s frustration
Offensive-minded head coaches want the ball. Now. And Mullen and his offense weren’t getting it in the first half that was dominated by UK’s ground game. Mullen’s frustration with his defense and his defensive coordinator — Grantham — was evident on the sideline as the Wildcats continued to play keep-away.
Mullen had what appeared to be several heated exchanges with Grantham, especially during a Kentucky drive that went from the Wildcats’ 8-yard line to inside the UF 10 and ended in a field goal and a 10-7 UK lead.
After the game, Mullen jokingly said the heated banter was over Christmas lights.
"I'll be honest with you," Mullen said. "I got home from Thanksgiving dinner. We're neighbors. He had his Christmas lights up on the front door. I said. 'We don't put Christmas lights up until after Thanksgiving.' He was adamant that, 'Yes, we do.' So we agreed to disagree."
Mullen said the exchanges were typical among coaches on the sideline during a game.
"You get after it, just having different discussions," he said. "You look at the job they did at halftime and look at how Kentucky was trying to attack. We came out and really shut them down."
After those halftime defensive adjustments were made — and produced on the field — Mullen and Grantham were both quiet and calm for most of the second half.
Trask threw for three touchdowns Saturday, the eighth time he’s reached at least that total this season, but the Wildcats certainly made the Heisman Trophy candidate work for his TDs and passing yards.
That was pretty much expected because the Wildcats have the No. 1 pass defense in the SEC.
Still, it was another move up in the record book for Trask, who is now tied for third for the most TD passes in a season by a UF quarterback with 34. He tied Rex Grossman, who had 34 in 2001. The only QB ahead of Trask now is Danny Wuerffel, who threw 35 touchdown passes in 1995 and 39 in 1996, the year he won the Heisman and led the Gators to a national title.
Trask finished with 256 yards passing and the three TD tosses to Pitts.
Who: Florida at Tennessee
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Online: For more coverage of Saturday's win, click to Gatorsports.com