After multiple hard-fought matchups with Kentucky in previous years, the Florida Gators were able to handle business in the Swamp yesterday afternoon despite some early concerns.
Reigning victorious in the contest 34-10, the beginning of the game didn’t bode well for the Gators on either side of the football and raised eyebrows when the matchup looked as if it could follow the pattern of those dating back to 2017.
While UF was able to find a spark nearing the half, Florida displayed a product of football that fell short of satisfactory in the first half of play.
As a result, this week’s the good, the bad, and the ugly brings trends from the first thirty minutes of action and all three components of the game to the forefront of Florida versus Kentucky observations.
Good: Special teams unit jumpstarts Gators
Following their huge victory against Georgia just under a month ago, Gators head coach Dan Mullen emphasized the importance of developing their killer instinct.
In his media availability the Monday following the showdown for the SEC East crown, the head ball coach discussed the special teams' necessity to improve apart from the specialists.
“There is confidence within the team about our specialists,” Mullen said. “When I talk about special teams, I talk about the all 11 guys on the field for a special teams play. I think there’s some improvement we need to do. We need some guys to step up there and continue to do that and improve that way.”
After the calls for increased production by Greg Knox’s unit, it stepped up in a big way to provide the Gators a spark against Kentucky yesterday afternoon.
Faking a punt on the first drive of the game after a presumed three and out, Florida was given the juice to jump ahead of the Wildcats early on via a 56-yard touchdown pass and catch by way of the Kyle Trask to Kyle Pitts connection for the first of three on the day.
From there, the offense began to sputter, unable to sustain themselves for the remainder of the half. As a result, Gators punter Jacob Finn saw early action.
Pinning both of his punts within the Kentucky ten-yard line, Finn did his part in creating long fields for UK to operate with. On his second—and final—punt of the day with just over a minute remaining in the first half, Finn executed a coffin corner punt to perfection, causing the ball to roll out of bounds just outside of the pylon inside the one-yard line.
With the defense forcing a three and out after Finn's boot, the Florida defense would give the ball back to its offense with an opportunity to operate given good field position with under a minute left.
However, the Gators didn’t get a short field to work with. They got points instead.
The punt return units misdirection trickery—with Xzavier Henderson faking as if he received the punt on the opposite side of the field—allowed Kadarius Toney to catch the ball with only a few men to beat. Being the dynamic playmaker he is, Toney caused the first man to miss and executed the play call to perfection, taking the punt back for a touchdown and giving Florida the lead just before halftime.
This combination of plays from the special teams unit played a vital role in the Gators' victory, leading to these comments by Mullen post-game: "Overall, I thought it was a really good special teams day.”
Bad: The offense sputters early but finds rhythm in the second half
It’s an understatement to say the Gators' offense has been good this year. It’s more fitting to categorize them as one of the best the NCAA has had to offer in 2020.
That doesn’t mean they haven’t seen their fair share of trials and tribulations, though.
Last week against Vanderbilt, the UF offense struggled to sustain themselves coming out of the gates but gradually picked it up as the game continued. Finding themselves in a similar hole in the second quarter versus Kentucky, the Gators found a way not to let first-half woes affect them in the win-loss column.
However, with these struggles occurring two weeks in a row—after near-unstoppable performances to begin the season—it marks the question: Is the flame that is the Gators offense beginning to fade as the season rolls on?
Having four first-half possessions that resulted in a touchdown, a fumble, and two punts, the Gators' inability to move football partly resulted in Kentucky dominating the time of possession battle in half one (but, more on this in a moment).
Finding a spark on the heels of special teams play and the three touchdowns receptions by Kyle Pitts, Florida turned it around for the better and widened the margin on the scoreboard by scoring 17 points in the third quarter.
Ugly: Defensive inconsistency leads to a lopsided time of possession in the first half
On top of the Gators' offensive struggles, the UF defense faced their own quarrels early in the matchup against Kentucky, resulting in a lackluster two quarters.
The difference between the two is that the major inefficiencies the Gators have suffered to this point in the season can be mainly blamed on the defensive unit. Against Kentucky, that inefficiency came in the form of the time of possession battle.
Forcing the Gators into a position where they held the football for just 6:37 of the first half, the Wildcats seemed to have the necessary formula for taking down the powerhouse that the Florida Gators offense has become in 2020.
Slowing the tempo down and controlling the clock to a point where they chewed nearly 23 and a half minutes of game time, Kentucky didn’t allow for the Gators' offense to find their usual rhythm.
However, the defense struggled to get off the field and give the offense the opportunities to do so, resulting in a majority of the blame being cast onto their shoulders.
Allowing the Kentucky rushing game to impose its will, Florida found themselves with a 10-7 deficit before halftime. With tensions building on the sideline, the frustration over the defense's incapability to halt the Wildcats culminated with an animated discussion between head coach and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham.
From that point forward, the defense significantly improved by not allowing Kentucky to score another point and limiting them to 46 second-half yards.
Kentucky ultimately held onto the time of possession lead for the game, with Florida considerably narrowing the margin down to 6:38 on the day.
While the defense figured things out with some encouragement from the man at the helm, the longer the season goes for Florida, the less they can afford to falter on the defensive side of the football.