Florida vs. Kentucky score, takeaways: Gators, Dan Mullen collapse under pressure, face familiar questions

By Adam Silverstein
October 3, 2021
Florida vs. Kentucky score, takeaways: Gators, Dan Mullen collapse under pressure, face familiar questions
Football

Image Credit: ESPN Images

After two weeks of commendable performances and with the top 10 wide open in front of it, the No. 10 Florida Gators saw their season’s goals disappear in front of their eyes in a 20-13 road loss to the Kentucky Wildcats at Kroger Field in Lexington, Kentucky. As if that was not bad enough, Florida’s head coach appeared unwilling — and the Gators themselves looked unprepared — to do what was necessary to stop the inevitable.

Dan Mullen on Saturday became the first Florida head coach to lose two games to Kentucky since Doug Dickey in 1977-78. Four years ago, in his second game leading the Gators, Mullen became the program’s first coach to lose to the Wildcats, period, in 31 years. Of course, these ‘Cats under head coach Mark Stoops are far from the same team that UF has faced over most of the last four decades, but that does not dampen the sting of the loss.

College Football Playoff? Poof. SEC East division crown? Hanging on by the thinnest of strings. For the second time in as many seasons, Florida inexplicably lost a game it knew it could not, and perhaps worst of all, should not. And while plenty talkative with myriad answers after wins, Mullen was relatively silent after this loss.

So much went wrong for the Gators on Saturday in Lexington that other coaches could likely dissect this game for a week yet still uncover new ways in which Florida cost itself what should’ve been a hard-fought win at Kentucky. And there are so many concerns for the Gators going forward that a book could be written on just the first five weeks of the 2021 season.

Let’s not waste any more time and take a look at everything that went wrong as UK beat UF in Lexington for the first time since 1986.

1. A complete lack of aggressiveness: Entering Saturday, Florida was feeling itself after beating the breaks off Alabama and Tennessee over the final two-and-a-half quarters of their games the last two weeks. The Gators outscored the Crimson Tide 28-10 down the stretch and shut out the Volunteers 28-0 despite falling into early holes in both games. Mullen faced a similar scenario against the Wildcats, though UF was not in as dire straits.

Leading 10-3 with less than 3 minutes in the opening half, redshirt senior defensive end Zachary Carter sacked quarterback Will Levis in Kentucky territory with Mullen holding three timeouts in his pocket. Not only did Mullen decide not call timeout after the sack to preserve more than 2 minutes of playing time for Florida entering the half, he chose not to stop the clock despite major gains by UF on its first couple ensuing plays. Knowing UK was starting the second half with the ball, Mullen was content to take a three-point lead into the locker room on the road against a division rival his program has struggled to beat decisively in recent years.

That lack of killer instinct, Mullen’s unwillingness or inability to do what was necessary to put the Gators in the best position to win the game, was a microcosm of the remaining 30 minutes and quite telling about his perspective on the team this season. In that case, he was more concerned about a potential down-field turnover against a team that struggled to move the ball itself than ensuring his team did what was necessary to at least attempt put itself ahead in a tough spot on the road.

This perspective revealed itself throughout the game as there was no sense of urgency that emanated from Mullen at any time on Saturday. As Florida piled up a near-record number of penalties (more on that to come), Mullen made no adjustments to the offensive cadence. As Kentucky stacked the box to sell out against the run, Mullen refused to even attempt throwing the ball down the field until it was too late. This despite success doing so each of the last two weeks. Zone reads, screen passes, quarterback draws and straight runs appeared to be all that was planned for Lexington. The only reason the Gators’ run/pass ratio was close to equal on the final box score is because they had no choice but to throw late in the game.

Redshirt freshman quarterback Anthony Richardson, who was indeed 100% cleared and did play for the first time in two weeks, got six snaps, including one called pass. Richardson was averaging 36.8 yards per completion entering Saturday’s game. He didn’t get a chance to throw it downfield once, even just to keep the ‘Cats honest.

Whether Mullen was outcoached by Stoops is up for debate as the Gators shot themselves in the foot more often than not, but there’s no question he lacked the — for lack of a better term — guts to do what was necessary to win in multiple situations throughout the game. UF played scared football … against UK of all teams.

2. A complete lack of preparedness and discipline: About those turnovers. Florida committed 15 on Saturday for 115 yards. Those 15 were the most for UF over a single game in 10 years and five more than any prior game under Mullen, snapping a 36-game streak where UF had 10 penalties or fewer per game. The Gators committed three personal foul penalties, including two that came on change of possession plays, literally putting the visitors in worse field position during key changeover scenarios and likely costing them points on both possessions.

As far as the rest, eight of the 15 penalties occurred on third or fourth down, the most inopportune times for miscues. There were also a staggering eight false start penalties, six of which came on third or fourth down. Florida entered the game choosing to have redshirt junior quarterback Emory Jones clap his snap count as a sold-out crowd of more than 60,000 fans efforted to disturb him in his first career road start. It didn’t work, and Mullen never adjusted.

Two of those aforementioned false starts, by the way, occurred on the game’s final drive with the Gators first just outside and then later inside the red zone. Florida turned a first-and-goal from the 5 into second-and-goal from the 14 in short order. (Earlier in the fourth quarter, a false start turned a fourth-and-2 try just outside the 10-yard line into a 33-yard field goal, costing UF points. In the first half, penalties turned a second-and-1 into a fourth-and-15 with a punt from its end zone.) In totality, the Gators gave the Wildcats more yards via penalty (115) than the hosts achieved throwing the football (74), and UF committed more penalties (15) than UK had first downs (13).

Mullen has more than once put false start penalties directly on himself. Well, OK, yeah. Otherwise, the most valuable unit on the team through four weeks — the offensive line — became the least valuable in a span of four quarters. (The running backs were responsible for a couple, to be fair.)

3. One positive — defense has improved: There’s no denying that Florida has stepped up defensively after a horrendous and frequently embarrassing unit directly cost the Gators significant opportunities a season ago. The Wildcats scored three touchdowns on Saturday, only one of which was truly the defense’s fault, a 41-yard breakaway run by Kentucky wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson, who blew past senior safety Trey Dean III, among others. The other scores were a 76-yard blocked field goal return in the third quarter (following a holding penalty that forced Florida to kick further away than necessary), and a TD on a short field after a Jones interception in the fourth quarter.

The Gators did struggle a bit stopping the run, allowing 137 total yards on 30 attempts, but they held Levis to 6 of 15 passing for 74 yards and the ‘Cats to 1 of 8 on third downs with just 13 first downs and 45 total plays in the game. Sophomore S Tre’Vez Johnson also intercepted Levis, though UF failed to turn it into points largely due to ensuing penalties. Florida outgained Kentucky 382-211 overall, including 211-74 through the air and 171-137 on the ground. Add in those 115 penalty yards for UF, and you know where the difference was made up.

On a night where Mullen was unwilling to let the offense do its job, the defense stepped up best it could. This was Florida’s first loss under Mullen when allowing 20 points or fewer since he took over the program (22-1).

4. The offense struggled, but point the blame properly: While it’s worthless to relitigate Mullen’s offensive failures, a note must be made that Jones, Richardson and the playmakers are not specifically at fault. Jones completed 23 of 31 passes for 203 yards, a touchdown and an interception. He made a number of clutch plays when given the chance, but unfortunately, he was provided with far too few opportunities to stretch the field. Richardson barely played enough to play or criticize. As far as the Gators’ stable of talented running backs, it’s almost impossible to run when a box is stacked against you.

5. What it means: Though impatient fans have long wondered whether Mullen is capable of winning national championship at Florida, the strides he had made through the first three seasons were undeniable. The Gators went 21-5 (11-5 SEC) over his first two seasons and have advanced to three straight New Year’s Six bowls. But while Florida’s losses to Alabama (eventual national champion) and Oklahoma (missing numerous key players in a meaningless game) to end the 2020 season were explainable, the loss that ended UF’s College Football Playoff hopes — 37-34 at home to LSU to end the regular season — was not. Couple that with the Kentucky loss on Saturday, and there’s concerning traits that seem to repeat themselves every year.

There’s no doubt that Mullen has fulfilled his initial promise in largely reestablishing the Gators as an offensive powerhouse while filling Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and bringing energy back to The Swamp. But one key question remains: Is this his ceiling? Is the best Florida can do under Mullen close losses to Alabama, occasional wins over Georgia and inexplicable conference losses on the road to struggling offenses (Kentucky, 2021) or at home to sub-.500 teams without full rosters (LSU, 2020)?

From an Xs and Os perspective, Mullen can go toe-to-toe with the best in the game. But there’s so much more to winning college football games and competing against the sport’s powerhouses, of which Florida used to be one. There are some simple facts here, including that the Gators have lost five of their last six games against Power Five opponents. That may be happenstance based on situation and opponent quality, but it’s also reality.

Now, Mullen has to keep Florida motivated with almost nothing in front of it. No CFP for sure; a two-loss team has never made it. The SEC East unlikely; is this Gators team going to win out and beat the Bulldogs and see UGA lose a second game? Good luck with that.

Florida is injured defensively with multiple players out for the season. The offensive line — its strength — is now banged up. Its potential quarterback of the future was barely able to see the field in a game he was actually needed. Jones has another season left; is Richardson going to be as patient as the man in front of him?

Oh … and recruiting? There’s still a couple months to go, but the Gators are ranked 16th nationally and fifth in the SEC with one top-100 commitment. They haven’t finished with a top-five class since 2013 (well before Mullen, of course). Is that changing with his laissez-faire approach and the assistants on this staff? Why do you think the Alabamas, Clemsons, Georgias, Ohio States and Oklahomas are so consistently dominant? They have the best players. Florida, meanwhile, is recruiting alongside Michigan, Oregon, Penn State and North Carolina.

The question going forward is whether Mullen is both willing and capable of doing what’s necessary to turn things around at Florida. Because there’s no doubt that, at the base level, he’s a good coach and a good fit with this program. Brian Kelly at Notre Dame has shown that a little introspection and a mindset accepting change can do wonders for one’s career and a team’s outlook.

Mullen at 49 is two years younger than Nick Saban when he won his first national title at LSU. He’s got the time, and he’s got the talent. Is he willing to work past his trademark stubbornness?

6. Odds and ends: Florida fell to 53-19 all-time against Kentucky, suffering its second loss in the last four meetings after 31 straight wins dating back to 1986 … UF dropped its first game to UK in Lexington since 1986 … the Gatorsa re now 23-4 when scoring first, 26-3 when leading at halftime and 22-1 when allowing 20 points or fewer after this loss … UF is 6-6 in games decided by 10 points or less under Mullen … the Gators have scored in 415 consecutive games, an NCAA record

7. What’s next? Though nothing is a given for the Gators at this point, Florida should be able to take a bit of a breather next week when it hosts Vanderbilt in The Swamp at a noon ET kickoff on SEC Network. UF will then play at LSU on Oct. 16 before entering the bye week ahead of the Georgia game.

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