Outside Kentucky’s Kroger Field, in a corner near the west end zone, is a sign that reads “Til the battle is won.” It’s supposed to remind Kentucky fans their Wildcats fight through the end of games. But in 30 years of games against Florida, it hadn’t been true.
With white pom-poms waving through a sea of blue-like whitecaps on the ocean, the sold-out crowd cheered and pounded the concrete at Kentucky’s Kroger Field as UK seized control of Saturday’s game in the second half. This was -- finally -- going to be the year. With fewer than seven minutes left, the Wildcats were up two scores.
Then came the silence.
As if resurrecting from the dead, the Gators came back. They scored once, then scored again with 43 second left to take the lead. As UF’s orange-clad faithful raved in the corner of the end zone, the raging sea of blue and white became still as lake water.
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The Wildcats managed to advance into Florida territory, and with 3 seconds left, they called on kicker Austin MacGinnis for a 57-yard field goal attempt. This was for the end of the streak.
It never reached the goal post, falling short of the crossbar and giving Florida its 31st consecutive victory in the series, 28-27.
The most pivotal moment of UF’s comeback came on its final drive, when quarterback Luke Del Rio tossed a screen pass to wideout Brandon Powell near the right sideline. Kentucky looked to have him cornered 2 yards behind the line of scrimmage on a third down, but Powell evaded them and found the first down marker. Silence overcame the field. Kentucky’s fans had seen this before.
Before that, the game’s momentum swung hard and often.
Del Rio entered the game in the third quarter when coach Jim McElwain opted to replace starting quarterback Feleipe Franks.
Del Rio threw an interception on his third pass of the game.
The Wildcats couldn’t capitalize on the turnover, but on his next drive, Del Rio and the Gators tried to convert a fourth-and-3 near midfield. They failed, and Kentucky capitalized with a field goal. From there, however, he was effective.
He finished the game with 74 yards on 9-of-14 passing with one touchdown and one interception.
His predecessor Franks, meanwhile, was ineffective in his first-career road start for the Gators, or at least ineffective enough to merit being replaced during the game. He threw for 85 yards on 7-of-12 passing with a touchdown as well. He was replaced following back-to-back three-and-out possessions to open the second half.
The brightest spot for Florida on offense was true freshman wideout Kadarius Toney.
It’s hard to limit Toney to the title receiver, although that’s the position he primarily plays and the group he practices with. Perhaps a better way to describe his importance to Florida’s offense is with his listing on its depth chart: Not receiver or running back or quarterback, but athlete.
That’s probably the best fit. Toney caught passes, took snaps at quarterback and ran the ball for the Gators on Saturday. Some of his highlights included a first-quarter run-after-catch where he cut back across the length of the field from the left to the right sideline for a 19-yard gain. He also scored a 36-yard touchdown on a direct-snap run up the middle.
Wideouts Freddie Swain and Tyrie Cleveland also grabbed touchdowns, with both coming under unusual circumstances.
Going for it on fourth-and-3 from Kentucky’s 45, Florida wideout Tyrie Cleveland waved his arms through the air once. Twice. Three times. Finally, he caught quarterback Feleipe Franks’ attention. Despite standing feet from Kentucky’s sideline, the Wildcats’ defense failed to notice him. There wasn’t a defender within 20 yards.
Franks snapped the ball immediately and launched a high-flying flare to Cleveland, who grabbed it and -- barely -- won the resulting foot race to the end zone.
Swain’s catch was the game-winner, and he was also completely uncovered.
His grab ensured Kentucky will have to wait another year ‘til the battle is won.