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  • Kentucky looked like it was going to finally beat Florida for the first time since 1986—and then everything fell apart.
By Eric Single
September 24, 2017

Kentucky came so, so, so, so, so, so close to beating Florida for the first time in 31 years. And then on two pivotal plays, the Wildcats reminded us all how it’s possible that a losing streak to a division rival can span generations.

Two unfathomable mistakes—a blown coverage that gave up the go-ahead score and a holding call that scuttled one final chance to respond—sank Kentucky in a 28–27 defeat that may be more painful than the 30 losses to Florida that came before it combined. Austin MacGinnis’s 57-yard field goal attempt as time expired was on line but fell agonizingly short, keeping the Gators improbably perfect in SEC play and deepening the emotional trauma UK fans harbor in this rivalry.

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Where to begin with the Wildcats? Start with the defense, which had Florida searching for answers for most of the night and prompted head coach Jim McElwain to bench starting quarterback Feleipe Franks for Luke Del Rio after two three-and-outs to open the second half. Del Rio, who sat third on the depth chart behind Franks and graduate transfer Malik Zaire during the season-opening loss to Michigan, led an 80-yard touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter and then found Mark Thompson sitting unmarked over the middle on a fourth-and-two just past midfield to extend the Gators’ next possession. Another fourth-down conversion got Florida into the red zone with less than a minute to go.

Then on a third-and-one from the six-yard line, the Wildcats’ defense tried to substitute at the last moment, with Mark Stoops wildly signaling in a new play. In the confusion, none of the 10 Kentucky defenders remembered to cover Freddie Swain, the lone Gators receiver split out wide. Del Rio recognized the blown assignment and lobbed the easiest touchdown pass of his career to the right corner of the end zone.

With 43 seconds to respond, Kentucky drove past midfield and appeared to move well within field goal range when Benny Snell Jr. busted a run up the middle. But the play was called back on a holding penalty on right guard Nick Haynes, forcing the Wildcats to scramble to get back into position for MacGinnis’s final futile attempt.

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If you were born after November 15, 1986, you don’t know what a world where Kentucky is better than Florida at football looks like. Three decades later, the Gators and rest of the SEC East nearly had to grapple with a new reality before the Wildcats stepped in to clear everyone’s heads. The FBS’s longest active losing streak in an annually recurring matchup remains intact, the Wildcats face a daunting challenge to regain a foothold in the SEC East race and Kentucky fans have a new soul-crushing loss to agonize over in Mark Stoops’s fifth season trying to get this program to turn the corner. All is as it was.

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