GAINESVILLE -- Make it 26.
Florida entered Saturday sporting a 25-game winning streak over Kentucky, a streak defined by domination. That trend continued Saturday as the No. 14 Gators (4-0, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) rolled to a 38-0 shutout of the Wildcats (1-3, 0-1 SEC) at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Truly, it wasn’t even close.
Florida’s defense intercepted quarterback Morgan Newton three times, returning one for six points, and held the Wildcats to just 60 yards passing while notching its first shutout of an SEC opponent since beating Mississippi State 52-0 on Sept. 19, 2001.
“Any time you get a shutout, man, those things are hard to come by in this day and age of football, regardless of who you’re playing,” Florida coach Will Muschamp said. “So I’m proud of the players because of that — turnovers, scoring on defense, setting up 14 points on three turnovers.”
Newton made his first start of the season because Maxwell Smith, who led the SEC in passing before Saturday, could not play because of a shoulder injury. The Gators took advantage early and often.
Despite moving the ball effectively in the first quarter, Kentucky could not put points on the board and Florida’s defense began to suffocate the Wildcats in the second quarter. The Gators’ defense was able to pressure Newton with just four rushers, leaving seven in coverage, and Newton struggled to find open receivers. He finished with no touchdowns and the three picks on 7-of-21 passing for 48 yards. Florida had 65 yards in interception returns.
Safety De’Ante Saunders got it started when Newton overthrew a running back on a crossing route early in the second quarter. Saunders returned it to the Kentucky 23, but sophomore Jeff Driskel threw an interception on Florida’s first play after taking over, his first big mistake of the season.
“I just tried to force something that wasn’t there,” Driskel said. “That’s plain and simple. I got too greedy.”
Florida cornerback Jaylen Watkins made sure Kentucky couldn’t capitalize, however, picking off Newton on the Wildcats’ next series and returning it 26 yards for a Gators’ touchdown to make the score 17-0. Watkins stepped in front of a slant route and Newton threw it right to him, allowing the junior to trot into the end zone untouched.
After Driskel found Quinton Dunbar for a touchdown with just 44 seconds remaining in the half, linebacker Michael Taylor made Kentucky pay a third time for trying to pass before halftime. Taylor said the Gators didn’t know Newton would start in place of Smith until the game’s first series, but added that the defense was somewhat comfortable because they faced Newton in Lexington, Ky., last season. Taylor also had an interception in that game.
“Yeah, me and him got a little thing, like he’ll throw me one every year,” Taylor said. “He was just staring down the receiver and I read his eyes and it was there just like last year.”
Florida couldn’t turn the third pick into points just before half, but Driskel led the offense on a 15-play scoring drive that took 9:03 off the clock to open the second half. The drive featured eight rushing plays and was capped by Driskel’s first rushing touchdown, a sneak from inside the 1-yard line. Driskel finished 18 of 27 for 203 yards and a touchdown, while also adding 35 yards and the score on the ground.
Despite another solid performance from his sophomore quarterback and a dominating defensive showing, Muschamp said there are still plenty of things for the Gators to work on with a bye week scheduled before No. 2 LSU comes to town on Oct. 6.
Florida was better on third-down and short-yardage situations on Saturday than it had been coming in, but the team still struggled with penalties, committing seven for 51 yards and had some miscommunication issues throughout. Center Jonotthan Harrison and Driskel had problems with two snaps that ended up on the ground, and Driskel made several throws that would have been problematic against a better defense. Muschamp also pointed to early struggles with stopping outside runs.
However, going into the bye week, fifth-year senior defensive tackle Omar Hunter said one thing is clear: Despite identical 4-0 starts, Florida has shown future opponents that its not the same team that was whipped in October last year on the way to a 7-6 record.
“Knowing we had a bye week and then LSU coming up and guys not even thinking about that right now and going out and focusing on Kentucky, that was huge,” he said. “That’s the maturity of this team compared to where it was last year.”