LEXINGTON, Ky. — For the second week in a row, Florida found itself storming the field in a game that came down to the last second. A 57-yard field-goal attempt by Kentucky kicker Austin MacGinnis came just a few feet short of making history and snapping a 30-year losing streak, as the No. 20 Gators escaped a soldout crowd at Kroger Field with a 28-27 win Saturday night.
Florida avoided its first loss to Kentucky since 1986 (31 straight wins) with Jesuit High graduate Malik Davis playing a big role in the rally. The true freshman carried 21 times for 93 yards, picking up crucial yards during the fourth quarter.
In the first half, Florida fans got what they wanted in terms of an explosive offense. Both of the Gators’ first-half touchdowns came on plays that started outside the red zone, including a 36-yard rush from Kadarius Toney in the wildcat formation and a fourth-down, 45-yard reception by Tyrie Cleveland that had the Gators (2-1, 2-0 SEC) tied 14-14 after the first half.
But it didn’t take long for things to look familiar for Florida with an offense that started to stall. Quarterback Feleipe Franks may have thrown a game-winning touchdown against Tennessee last week, but coach Jim McElwain’s leash never loosened as UF’s third-year coach yanked Franks (7-for-12, 85 yards, one TD) after back-to-back three-and-outs to start the second half. Last year’s starter and redshirt junior Luke Del Rio came in and completed two passes before being intercepted by safety Darius West.
But despite the miscue, McElwain left his veteran game manager in the contest. And while Del Rio didn’t showcase the arm strength of Franks, he strung together two fourth-quarter touchdown drives to rally the Gators.
“These kids just keep playing,’’ McElwain said.
What did McElwain plan to tell his players after the rally? “We’ve got to get ready to play Vanderbilt at home.’’
The first of the fourth-quarter TD drives began with some trickery. With UF trailing 27-14, Toney began the drive with a 50-yard pass to Cleveland. After Del Rio completed a 1-yard pass to Toney on the next play, the Gators ran five straight rushing plays, culminating in a 6-yard touchdown dash from receiver Brandon Powell.
The second drive sapped five minutes and 48 seconds off the clock, wearing Kentucky (3-1, 1-1) down before Del Rio threw 5 yards to receiver Freddie Swain in the end zone with 43 seconds left, Swain’s first catch of the year. Swain was uncovered as Kentucky didn’t cover him, trying unsuccessfully to get a timeout before the ball was snapped.
Coming into the game, Florida game-planned to stop Kentucky’s dual-threat quarterback, Stephen Johnson, from turning broken plays into long runs. And while Florida succeeded in limiting Johnson to 2 net yards on the ground, the senior made the Gators pay through the air, tossing three touchdowns and totaling 196 yards.
Beyond Johnson, Kentucky had an X-factor in second-string running back Sihiem King. A Florida defense that has struggled to stop long runs gave up runs of 20, 21 and 30 yards to King, who finished the game with five carries for 64 yards along with a 24-yard reception.
Stopping big runs has been an issue for Florida all year, and Kentucky had little trouble exploiting the Gators with six rushes of 12 yards or more, most of them coming outside the hashmarks.
But the Wildcats didn’t do much better when it came to stopping the ground attack.
Davis emerged as McElwain’s favored running back, finding success against a run defense that came into the night as the SEC’s best, giving up an average of 57 yards per game. Florida tripled that mark, totaling a season-high 186 yards.