University of Florida

Florida’s defense bends, but doesn’t break in win over Kentucky

Florida quarterback Will Grier is hit by Kentucky defensive tackle Cory Johnson, left, after throwing a pass during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015, in Lexington, Ky.
Florida quarterback Will Grier is hit by Kentucky defensive tackle Cory Johnson, left, after throwing a pass during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015, in Lexington, Ky. AP

Florida’s offense is a muddled mess, but the Gators relied on a familiar formula to extend their record winning streak over Kentucky to 29 games.

Although coach Will Muschamp is gone, the tenacious defense he built remains UF’s calling card.

Near full strength for the first time all season, the Gators defense — self-proclaimed the Best Defense in the Nation, or #BDN — spearheaded its 14-9 victory with a commanding performance.

“I definitely feel like we’re our complete BDN defense that we always preached,” said defensive end Bryan Cox, who recorded two tackles and a quarterback pressure. “We’ve got two starters back in the secondary and also a starter back on the D-line. So it helped.”

Florida held Kentucky’s explosive attack 175 yards below its season average (241 total), as UF’s heralded secondary returned its top two playmakers — All American cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and junior safety Keanu Neal — and suffocated Kentucky quarterback Patrick Towles.

The Wildcats’ 6-5, 240-pound junior had a brutal night, completing eight passes for 126 yards just one year after torching UF for 369 yards and three touchdowns.

Towles was picked off twice, including a 53-yard interception by Hargreaves on Kentucky’s opening possession. Neal registered nine tackles and a sack in his season debut.

But the secondary impressed chiefly because of Florida’s fantastic pass rush. After generating five sacks in the first two games, the Gators hounded Towles for six sacks and another three hurries.

Senior defensive tackle Jon Bullard, working on an All-American-type season, registered two sacks, as did edge rusher Alex McCalister.

Both players made critical plays late to thwart Kentucky’s comeback bid.

“We kind of went back-and-forth the whole night,” Bullard said. “I had one. He got one. He got another one, and he came and talked to me.

“I told him I was going to catch up. We just go out there and try to have fun but compete at the same time. That’s what we did.”

Florida’s defense had some issues tackling early, but the unit adjusted by halftime and then withstood a barrage of small punches in the fourth quarter.

As the offense struggled to stay on the field (just four first downs after halftime), the Gators’ gassed defense, especially the front seven, rose to the challenge, bending but not breaking.

“They played their tales off,” UF coach Jim McElwain said. “They’re tough to block. Man, you know, play after play, I thought they did a really good job.

“We lost gap control on a couple of the inside runs. We were a little too aggressive. Give [Kentucky] credit for that because they had some explosive runs. But for the most part, [we] dominated up front.”

The Gators ultimately extended the streak by limiting the Wildcats to field goals, denying Kentucky touchdowns on three trips inside the red zone — including two possessions in the fourth quarter.

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