Florida Gators not finger-pointing after loss in Lexington

Graham Hall
Special to The Sun
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Kentucky quarterback Will Levis, center, fights through the Florida defense during the second half Saturday in Lexington, Ky.

After a second conference loss in three weeks, Florida no longer controls its own destiny in the SEC Eastern division, effectively lowering the ceiling of expectations for the remainder of the season. 

No. 2-ranked Georgia looks the part after dismantling Arkansas, 37-0, on Saturday, and the Bulldogs are firmly in the driver's seat as the midway point of the season approaches. 

The No. 18 Gators (3-2) could have hung their heads in the aftermath of the loss to the Wildcats, realizing their goal of making the College Football Playoff will require a significant amount of good fortune along with playing nearly immaculate football from here on out. 

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But the post-game message coming from the Florida locker room highlighted UF’s room for improvement rather than the initial disappointment from the outcome. 

“We've just got to get back to the drawing board, and tomorrow go watch the film and see all the mistakes we made and have to improve on,” Florida quarterback Emory Jones said Saturday night. “I have to step up and be a great leader after a loss like this. That's kind of my role right now, just go in and try to be the best leader I can to make sure we stay up and stay on the right track."

Jones completed 23 of 31 passing attempts for 203 yards to go along with a touchdown and an interception against the Wildcats. Jones’ potential game-tying pass to Trent Whittemore on fourth-and-goal was broken up in the end zone, giving UK its first victory over the Gators at home since 1986. 

Jones’ performance was a step back from the way the redshirt junior played in the second half against No. 1 Alabama and throughout UF’s 38-14 win over Tennessee, although he wasn’t the only quarterback who struggled against a Wildcats defense that entered the night ranked top-10 nationally. Anthony Richardson made his return, but missing were the dynamic plays the Eastside High grad flashed in Florida’s first two contests of the season. Richardson completed his lone passing attempt of the night for eight yards and rushed five times for 25 yards. 

There was clearly plenty of disappointment to go around — how Florida channels its dismay will determine whether the loss is just a blip in the team’s progression in 2021 or the catalyst in a subpar season. 

“We all said that we have a decision to make. This can either go one of two ways. We can be pouty, sad about it and lose out, or we can stay focused and get back to the drawing board and work as hard as we ever have before to win out,” Jones said. “So that's what we're going to do. We're going to try our best to go out there and do our job every week."

The onus isn’t just on Jones and the offense — it will take a team-wide buy-in to put this loss in the rearview, meaning UF’s defense can’t point fingers despite holding the Wildcats to just 13 points on offense. 

What the offense does has little effect on how the defense plays, and the Gators can’t alter their mindset because one unit struggles; it also wasn’t too long ago where UF’s defense couldn’t stay on the field and get stops, and quarterback Kyle Trask didn’t sow seeds of discord when record-breaking performances were all for naught. 

With much still to play for, starting Saturday at noon with Homecoming against Vanderbilt, the Gators know they must stay united — otherwise, further letdown is all but guaranteed.

“Whatever the offense does — they’re having a great game, they having a slow game, you know, I just feel like, defense, our focus is just go out there and do what we do,” defensive end Zachary Carter said. “Personally I don't really think about what the offense is doing. I just try to do what we could do on defense."

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