Five takeaways from No. 19 Florida Gators loss to No. 20 Kentucky at The Swamp

Kevin Brockway
Gator Sports

The No. 19 Florida Gators were unable to carry over the momentum from its exhilarating season-opening win over Utah into its second straight game against a ranked opponent.

Two interceptions by Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson proved costly as the Gators lost their first game of the Billy Napier era, falling 26-16 to No. 20 Kentucky before 89,993 at The Swamp.

"Coaching’s a lot like teaching, right?" Napier said. "When the students don’t perform as well as you want them, too, I think as a coach and as a teacher, you’ve got to take a good look in the mirror. I think that’s exactly what I’m going to do, what our staff’s going to do."

With the score tied at 16 in the third quarter, Richardson threw his second interception, returned 65 yards by cornerback Kiedron Smith for the go-ahead score. Florida led 16-13 at the half but failed to score in the final 30 minutes. 

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Florida (1-1, 0-1 SEC) dropped its fifth straight SEC game dating back to last season and is now 2-3 in its last five meetings against the Wildcats (2-0, 1-0 SEC).

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops picked up his 61st career win at the school, passing Bear Bryant as UK's winningest coach.

On the injury front, starting right tackle Michael Tarquin left the game in the first half with a leg injury and starting linebacker Ventrell Miller left in the second half with a leg injury. The status of both players will be updated next week.

Here are five takeaways from Saturday's game.

Will Levis outplays Anthony Richardson

Gators quarterback Anthony Richardson (15) looks at the defense during the first half against the Kentucky Wildcats at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022.

It was a back to earth game for Richardson, who was effectively contained by Kentucky's defense. Kentucky spied Richardson throughout the game, forcing him to throw from the pocket. Richardson struggled with his accuracy all night, completing just 14 of 35 passes for 143 yards. 

"Just have to play better," Richardson said. "I feel like I let everyone down, especially the defense."

Richardson took a few shots in the early in the game, but said he was good enough physically to compete.

"I missed some wide open throws so my confidence got shot," Richardson said. "It effected my receivers ... I didn't help my o-line out, I didn't help my receivers, I didn't help my team."

On the two interceptions, Richardson said the first one was on a bootleg and he credited linebacker Jordan Wright for making a play. On the second interception, Kentucky's go-ahead pick six: "Flashbacks to the Georgia game," Richardson said. "Just threw it right to the dude."

Levis, meanwhile, made enough plays to win the game for Kentucky, completing 13 of 24 passes for 201 yards and one touchdown, while adding one rushing TD. 

NFL Scouts from the Washington Commanders, Tennessee Titans, Tampa Bay Bucs, Seattle Seahawks, Atlanta Falcons, New York Giants, Minnesota Vikings, Miami Dolphins and Los Angeles Rams attended the matchup of potential NFL first round QBs.

Florida's defensive line brings the heat

UF defensive lineman Gervon Dexter Sr. (9) celebrates his interception that lead to a touchdown in the first half at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022.

After recording no sacks a week ago against Utah, Florida's defensive line was more active Saturday night against Kentucky's inexperienced offensive line. The Gators recorded three sacks and a pressure by defensive end Brenton Cox that led to an interception by defensive tackle Gervon Dexter.

Florida limited Kentucky, who was without leading rusher Chris Rodriguez Jr. for the second straight week, to 70 yards rushing on 1.8 yards per carry.

“We just want to be dominant the whole game," Dexter said. "Whether it’s the pass rush or whatever, the whole game. We just want to be dominant.” 

Gators' shaky secondary

Florida had some breakdowns in pass coverage that allowed Levis to get going. Defensive back Jalen Kimber was beaten on a 50-50 ball by Kentucky receiver Dane Key on a 55-yard TD catch that put Kentucky up 7-3.

Starting cornerback Avery Helm also was picked on at times in coverage and let a potential interception in the third quarter go through his hands. 

Trevor Etienne is terrific in first half

True freshman running back Trevor Etienne scored his first career TD for Florida on an 11-yard run then added a catch on a two-point conversion to put Florida up 14-7. Etienne continued to show advanced vision and can cut back on a dime, making him already Florida's most dynamic runner. Etienne finished with 9 carries for 46 yards.

"Trevor’s a good young player," Napier said. "I think Trevor’s got great vision, great instincts. I think he’s elusive, he can make people miss, he’s low to the ground. He catches the ball well. He’s out there playing as a rookie, but he’s got the intelligence and maturity to do that. He’s in the rotation... Excited about Trevor and his future for sure.”

Questionable play calls

Napier elected to go for it twice inside his own territory in the fourth quarter, once on 4th-and-3 from the UF 40 and once on a 4th-and-6 from the UF 24 with 4:02 left. Both times, the Gators failed to convert. Florida had three timeouts left with 4:02 left and could have asked the defense to get one more stop, but perhaps Napier thought the defense was gassed.

“We had gotten some stops," Napier said. "At that point of the game you’ve got to be aggressive. You think about where you’re on the field. You only get so many opportunities to get it back. They were chewing it up pretty good so no questioning that was the right decision.”