Gators' Fourth-Quarter Rally Stuns Cats 28-27 … again

September 23, 2017

Gators’ Fourth-Quarter Rally Stuns Cats 28-27 … again

Gators have beaten the Wildcats 31 straight times, dating to 1986.

Chris Harry - @GatorsChris

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Death, taxes and Florida-Kentucky football.

Apparently, the venue doesn’t matter, which quarterback is playing doesn’t matter and even double-digit Wildcat leads don’t matter.

Florida backup Luke Del Rio threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Freddie Swain with 43 seconds left that erased a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit and gave the No. 20 Gators a 28-27 victory that stunned the upset-minded Wildcats and their 62,295 Kroger Field faithful who expected to see history Saturday night. History, however, has been known to repeat itself. In the case of the UF-UK football series, make that 31 straight wins for the Gators (2-1, 2-0), dating to 1987.

UK, which opened a 27-14 lead with just under 12 minutes to go, had a chance to win the game at the gun, but Austin McGinnis’s desperation field-goal attempt from 57 yards was short as time expired, giving Florida a second game in eight days that came down to the final play. This outcome, though, wasn’t nearly as dramatic as last weekend’s “Hail Mary” defeat of Tennessee.

Besides, this was Kentucky. The outcome was predetermined, right?

“Well, that was fun,” UF coach Jim McElwain said. “Just can’t tell you how much I really like our football team, our guys. They keep hanging in there and figuring out a way to play the game.”

It took a veteran quarterback to set things in motion.

Fourth-year junior Luke Del Rio relieved redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks and sparked the Florida comeback that ended with his touchdown toss to Freddie Swain in the final minute.

“When you get put in in the middle of a game it’s fun to go in and play, but it’s not easy because everyone else is kind of in the rhythm of the game,” said Del Rio, who did not take a snap in either of UF’s first two games of the season. “So I tried to settle down as best as I could, move the ball, which was encouraging.”

Del Rio, the fourth-year junior, was summoned in the second half to replace redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks, who was ineffective in his first road start. Del Rio, with 6:31 remaining, took over at the UF 42 and marched the Gators 58 yards in 13 plays, converting two third downs and two fourth downs along the way. Facing a third-and-1 at the UK 5, Del Rio took the snap from center and lofted a soft pass to Swain, who was all alone in the right flat of the end zone.

How could he be so open?

“They had busts early on, so we were just trying to get them confused and off-balance, and that’s what happened,” Swain said of the UK coverage that surrendered a 45-yard touchdown in the first half on a near-similar circumstance. “At first, [the defender] was there, but then he moved over. I tapped my head at Luke and he saw me.”

How could he miss?

Still, on Kentucky’s ensuing series, quarterback Stephen Johnson started his unit at the UK 25 and immediately completed an 11-yard pass on first down, then got 15 bonus yards on a roughing-the-quarterback penalty against UF defensive end Jabari Zuniga that put the ball at the Florida 49. After three straight incompletions and facing a fourth-and-10, Johnson hit Charles Walker for a 14-yard completion to the UF 35 — right on the cusp of field-goal range for McGinnis, who earlier in the quarter hit a 50-yarder.

On the next play, though, running back Benny Snell Jr. went up the middle for 10 yards to the UF 25, but the play was called back for 10-yard offensive holding penalty against Kentucky guard Nick Haynes that pushed the Wildcats back to the UF 45.

A six-yard completion and dead ball with three seconds remaining gave McGinnis a chance — for a career-long 57-yarder — but his try was well short.

Kentucky (3-1, 1-1), which was looking to go 4-0 for the first time since 2008, has not defeated Florida since a 10-3 victory here on Nov. 17, 1986. The run of 31 straight is the fourth-longest such streak in college football history.

Del Rio finished nine of 14 for 74 yards, with the one touchdown and an interception, compared to Franks who went 7-for-12 for 85 yards, one touchdown and no picks. The Gators got huge contributions from a pair of true freshmen in tailback Malik Davis, who rushed 21 times for 93 yards (half the output of a rushing attack that cranked out a 186 yards), while all-purpose guy Kadarius Toney had a 36-yard touchdown run, a 50-yard pass that led a fourth-quarter TD and added four receptions for 35 yards.

The Florida defense surrendered 340 yards, but only 42 in the fourth quarter.

True freshman utility man Kadarius Toney breaks free for a 36-yard touchdown run in the second period that put the Gators on the scoreboard.

Johnson, the fifth-year senior who transferred to UK from Grambling two years ago, gave the Florida defense fits for three quarters, completing 17 of 25 passes for 195 yards and three touchdowns without a turnover. His third touchdown throw came on UK’s first possession after halftime to break a 14-all tie and McGinnis’s two second-half field goals — a 45-yarder with 5:54 left in the third, then the 50-yarder at the 11:33 mark of the fourth — gave the Cats their 27-14 cushion.

UK fans started sensing this was the year.

UF’s players didn’t.

“It never got the point where it was dire,” junior defensive tackle Taven Bryan said. “But we knew we had to step it up and do what we knew we could do.”

On both sides of the ball. UF’s offense, held to 245 yards through the game’s first 48-plus minutes, cranked out 150 the rest of the way. The Gators drove to a quick score to make things interesting and the defense promptly followed suit.

A quick-strike seven-play, 80-yard march, keyed when Toney hit Tyrie Cleveland on an end-around pass for 50 yards on the first play, was finished by a 6-yard touchdown run by slot back Brandon Powell out of the “wildcat” formation. That made the score 27-21 with 7:58 to go.

The Florida defense responded by forcing a Kentucky three-and-out that set up Del Rio for the go-ahead march, a methodical mix of eight runs and five passes, including a 10-yard completion from Del Rio to running back Mark Thompson on fourth-and-3 and a seven-yard fourth-and-1 run by Davis that gave the Gators a first down at the UK 14.

Three plays later, no one covered Swain in the end zone.

Forty-three seconds later, Florida was celebrating and Kentucky was leaving the field in frustration.  

“The breakdown in communication defensively on the two plays are really a sore spot because they stick out and it takes away from the great passion and energy that the team, that our team played with,” UK coach Mark Stoops said. “We played winning football.”

Most of the night, they did. Johnson hit tight C.J. Conrad for a 23-yard touchdown strike on the Wildcats’ first possession of the third period and after a second straight three-and-out by the UF offense, UK drove 41 yards for a 42-yard McGinnis field goal and two-possession advantage. After that second three-and-out, McElwain benched Franks in favor of Del Rio, who threw for 320 yards and four touchdowns in a win over Kentucky at Gainesville last year.

“We just felt we needed to jumpstart a little bit — and Feleipe didn’t do anything wrong,” McElwain said. “He was disappointed about it, but he is also one of the happiest guys in there that we won. That tells you something about the guy and tells you something about this team and that’s good to see.”

Del Rio’s third pass, however, was intercepted and the Cats used the turnover and the short field to work for McGinnis’ 50-yarder and that 13-point lead that didn’t last.

Junior defensive tackle Taven Bryan bears down on UK quarterback Stephen Johnson in the fourth quarter, part of a defense that held the Wildcats to just 42 yards in the fourth quarter.

“We always believed,” Zuniga said. “And we started executing.”

Kentucky took leads of 7-0 and 14-7 in the first half on touchdown throws by Johnson. Florida, though, eventually answered both. The Gators tied the game 7-7 when Toney lined up in the “wildcat” formation and on the second play of the second quarter went right, slipped through the first level of defense, cut outside and scored untouched for his first career touchdown. Toney’s score marked UF’s first rushing touchdown since the Georgia game last season, a run of nine games.

The Cats lost their 14-7 lead when, on fourth-and-3 from the UK 45, McElwain rolled the dice and decided to go for it. Out of a timeout, Kentucky neglected to cover Cleveland, who was lined up wide right (an ominous development for the home team, by the way), and Franks made the Cats pay. Franks easily hit Cleveland down the sideline. Cleveland outraced a pair of defenders to the pylon to tie the game at 14-all with 3:16 to play in the first half.

Then Kentucky seized command in the second half and appeared on its way.

Until the inevitable happened.

“It feels good knowing that the team can stay composed in situations, but I mean the win wasn’t pretty,” Zuniga said. “But it was a win.”

The latest in a very long line. 

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